By Tim Dowdy
2022 will be my third weed-warrior season along my adopted little patch of Rock Creek Park: I call it “Piney Branch West.”
I have always been interested in this site for a handful of reasons (Photo 1). It’s a very complex little stretch of land where a stark array of both natural and man-made features collide. Situated in a deep rocky ravine geographically perched on top of the Fall Line, Piney Branch is actually a network of natural springs and seeps that (unfortunately) gets periodically flooded by one of the city’s largest combined sewer overflows (CSO) during intense storm events. Most of Piney Branch is, in fact, “buried” below ground and drains a very large urban watershed located in the Northeast quadrant of DC, stretching into portions of Takoma Park and Maryland beyond. Piney Branch “daylights” at my site – right at the Wetland / Picnic Pavilion just west of 16th Street Bridge. (You can actually see the water bubbling up out the ground right behind the pavilion!) The surrounding area is heavily trafficked, both by fast-moving vehicles on Piney Branch Parkway and the hundreds if not thousands of joggers and recreational park users constantly passing through. The streambank and adjacent hillsides are pretty but steep, with beautiful forestry and rock formations along both sides.
My interest at Piney Branch West started somewhat casually back in the summer of 2019. At that time I was big into exercise and regularly jogging back and forth through there. At one particular spot along Piney Branch Parkway just west of Park Road Bridge (Photo 2) … I noticed this huge lump of overgrowth … literally a huge “mat” of impenetrable vines completely covering the ground and smothering some big unknown mound underneath. I was curious. What was it? Turns out – it was one single maple tree underneath all that stuff I later learned to identify as highly-invasive, non-native and super-aggressive Porcelain Berry. “Tree Zero” as I called my little find – stunted and on its last legs at that due to lack of sunlight. I swear there must have been only eight to twelve sad little leaves on that poor tree when I uncovered it.
It made me so sad to think that this tree had been suffering for so long, and no one seemed to care or notice. It made me even MORE sad to think this tree and portion of land it occupied were all being “wasted” to Porcelain Berry … all that space for good natives and habitat — trees, pollinators, wildflowers, grasses — being completely overtaken and rendered ecologically non-productive … all because of one stupid out-of-control invasive vine. Jog after jog after jog I would pass by the Porcelain Berry Patch until one day, I just couldn’t stand it anymore … and finally I decided to take action: I removed the Porcelain Berry and freed the tree. I even hauled out a step ladder so I could strip away the blanket of vines that had wrapped their way up to the very top. I probably looked like some random weirdo out there up on my ladder, but I didn’t care. It felt good. Like I was doing the right thing, something that mattered, something bigger than myself, for the greater common good. (And I double-swear I think I even heard that tree make a loud gasp when the vines came off: finally I can breathe!)
And so, with that one single little Tree Zero, my Weed Warrior journey had begun. And it’s been a truly-rewarding, educational and fascinating journey ever since.
Several seasons later, I’m happy to report my “Tree Zero” appears well on its way to recovery. It also got some new neighbors! (Photo 3.) To my surprise in late winter (very early spring 2022) NPS planted a handful of new trees in the area formerly known as “The Porcelain Berry Patch”.
I was elated – oaks, dogwoods, eastern redbuds, maples, tulip poplars, native holly – all these great native species planted densely in one localized spot, eventually an “infill” canopy to reconstitute and restore the original woodland edge. Originally, my long-term goal for the Porcelain Berry Patch was to remove the invasives and create a native grass and wildflower meadow … but with all the new trees planted, I happily will need to readjust my assessment. Believe me – I’m not complaining … I’ll take more trees any day!
With the Porcelain Berry Patch covered by newly-planted trees, I have now been able to redirect my attention to other portions of Piney Branch West. For example, just east of Park Road Bridge on the Mount Pleasant side of the hill, I have become obsessed with freeing the upper tree canopy there (Photo 4).
I have been employing the technique of “window treatments” essentially cutting a clear opening from ground to about shoulder-height, the goal being to cut the non-native invasives from their root system at a sufficient “gap” big enough so they can’t reconnect.
Over time, the invasive “residue” will die off and fall away from the upper canopy, thus allowing the mature tall native trees to regenerate and, ideally, thrive. Additionally, more sunlight and moisture can percolate down to the ground level, where these resources are desperately needed.
Most, if not all, of what I do as a Weed Warrior is essentially forest edge management. (Photo 5) Man-made “edges” such as roadsides and pathways are basically function like human “wounds” or “scars”: they are vulnerable openings with enhanced access to sunlight where non-native invasives can easily get in and take hold. And once they do, non-native invasives can very quickly take over and destroy almost any living thing in its path!
Furthermore, once establishing a foothold along the edge, non-native invasives quickly begin to encroach deeper and deeper into undisturbed forest, spreading like stains that blot out ecological productivity and obliterate natural native habitat.
Having said all of this, I am very much looking forward to the 2022 Weed Warrior Season. I see a lot more “Window Treatments” in my future. Fortunately, I find this work extremely rewarding, so I am happy to keep plugging at it. I must admit – there are times when it can be overwhelming, and when this happens I do look to inspiration from others I’ve come to meet and admire in our Weed Warrior community. (Social Media Plug – follow us at our hashtag #rocrweedwarriors on social media!) It’s so wonderful to know there are others out there who care deeply and are willing to take action and do something about it!