Wild at heart

The meadows at Longwood are surprisingly green in May. I am so use to the British meadows being so floriferous at this time of the year I hadn’t considered that this would be the case for the them here. Natural Lands was of my favourite departments. I spent time here in October. They look after the peripheral and surrounding ‘non-gardened’ areas that includes ponds and woodlands and boasts a mere 86 acres Meadow Garden as their ‘display and showcase garden’. This is the meadow that Longwood had the resources to move an entire road to make more complete - which may seem extravagant but also makes a lot of sense ecologically - a great big uninterrupted patchwork of different habitats important to many native flora and fauna here.

The meadow, October 2016


I was very excited to be there at that time of year despite the threat of ticks (especially because of lyme disease) and poison ivy, to which I was fortunate to remain unscathed by - wearing the right kind of workwear - long sleeves and trousers tucked into thick socks definitely helped. It is one of the peak times of year to experience the meadow and working in this area really touched upon the heart of my interests - seeing native plants in the wild and having a more ecological approach to gardening.


My first day there was spent trying to listen out for the low chirping of Gray Tree Frogs, and tune my ears more intently to the natural soundscape that was going on, whilst planting out plugs of Aster divericatus and transplanting young enough seedlings of Joe Pye Weed - Eupatorium fistulosum to bulk out existing clumps. By the end of the day I had seen three different types of Praying Mantis - the big oriental one, the medium European one (both of these green) and the smaller North Carolinian one which is brown. It helped that Colin McCallum-Cook one of the main stewards of the meadow is avidly interested in geology, insects and wildlife, bringing to my attention to a world that I am not so familiar with but would like to learn more about. It was so refreshing to look at gardening from this perspective - to consider the wildlife and the relationship of plants with everything else instead of just honing on one element.

Ootheca - the egg case of the native praying mantis


The meadow is not an exact depiction of a Pennsylvanian meadow, but more what they call an enhanced meadow. It is a eco-state held in a state of stasis as due to the rainfall in this region, the inclination of the landscape is to revert to forests so a lot of work is required to keep it at this stage. Unlike the prairies and steppes territories in the midwest where these areas stay naturally as grasslands. But it is an interesting example of how gardening in this way and being informed by nature and ecology can also be aesthetically pleasing, here the meadow is epic and breathtaking, and is a constant changing scene. I have always been fascinated at how meadows tread the line between land management, ecology and gardening.

There is an interesting historic connection in that North American Indians managed the land through burning to maintain as mainly grassland to attract buffalos. A controlled burn is still what takes place now to maintain the meadow as such. They do not burn the entire meadow all at once but a different section (⅓) every year. This helps maintain refuge areas for wildlife to be able to move to and the fire easier to control.

A controlled burn conducted in March


There has been a lot of discussions about native and invasive species. Many of the plants that we take for granted like Pyrus callyrana, Elaeagnus umbellata (Autumn olive), Euonymus alatus and Lythrum salicaria and appreciate as ornamental plants in the UK, does not have the same detrimental effect on native plants, wildlife and habitats there as they do here. One of the reason is probably scale, anything that can get out of control is much harder to manage because of the size of country. Another is climate - being very cold in winter and hot and humid in summer - possibly like their dominant woodland trees - Liriodendron tulipifera can give some plants a real spurt of growth that is harder to get a hand on. Paulownia tomentosa another one of their prominent invasives is like Buddleia davidii in the UK - in the right condition they are opportunist & pioneer plants and will take over where it can. It is fast growing and can grow into large trees. In the city it may not pose as much as a problem, as many plants do not survive in those conditions anyway and it is more confined, but once it gets out into the wild it is an issue.


Plus in the UK there is hardly any true wilderness anymore, in Northern Europe plant species diversity is one of the lowest in the world and it is a country that has been cultivated and manipulated by humans for centuries. In comparison the virginal wilderness of North America is relatively young in being touched and affected by exotic species  - perhaps there has not been enough time or change has been too sudden for this environment to adapt. There has even been controversial research in the UK stating that exotic and invasive plants doesn’t pose a problem for our native flora and habitat, and actually adds to providing a good, rich and varied food source and habitat for our wildlife. Landscape architect of the Olympic Park and plantsman James Hitchmough himself has been very vocal about how he doesn’t feel exotics are a problem, and points out that the UK’s own native plants like bracken can be just as problematic.


In the US Doug Tallamy entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home has been very influential especially in the East - highlighting how invasive plants and the use of exotics are a threat to the ecosystem, in that they are inedible to most of their native plant eaters like insects, hence affecting the food chain and essentially contributing towards creating wildlife deserts. Even when they can feed on such plants this does not mean that they’re good for them. For example birds do like the taste of Pyrus calleyrana and Elaeagnus umbellata - because their fruits and berries are bigger and has more sugar in them, but the former even makes them physically sick without them even realising that it is the cause. It is like their equivalent of eating junk food, and similar to when ducks are fed bread and hedgehogs milk.


We speculated about why a lot of invasive species seem to come from Asia, there is the theory that the US landscape in the North East was glacial many years ago and this would have wiped out much life, whilst places like China wasn’t affected by glaciers. So wildlife and flora has had a lot more time to evolve and adapt there and become very tough, and when these transfer to other countries like North America, it is easy to imagine why they would take over so readily. As the country is so huge, they have to be careful of invasions from other states as well as other countries.


During my time here I helped out with restorative planting of different perennial plant species in the meadow and the woodland edge like Carex lurida, Scutellaria incana, Phytostegia virginiana ’Miss Manners’, Asclepias incarnata, Lobelia cardinalis, Iris versicolor, Mimulus ringens, Chelone glabra and Aster novi-belgii. Some were planted to enhance aesthetics and maintain impact areas and some to carry on encouraging the diversity of wildlife and plants. It was also interesting that they observed that people didn’t like it if they just are instantly met with the ‘wild’, transitional areas had to be cultivated and gently lead them in for them to appreciate this area.

What happens when the land is not managed - it defaults to mainly being overtaken by invasives.


I also planted trees in the woodland edge and in the riprarian buffer areas. We had to put deer protection fencing around everything, for small mass plantings we would fence off an area that was low enough for a deer to jump over but small enough for them to want to jump out of quickly, because they don’t like small confined spaces - this has helped with the success of regenerating smaller areas. We even had to chase off deer in an enclosed area where they weren’t suppose to be in, this involved 7 people forming a chain and walking slowly through the area making as much noise as possible, until we were able to force it out of an open gate. As October drew to a close, more frequently there would be deer roadkill and if it happened on the areas we were responsible to clear, we would have to go and pick up the corpse and drop it off at Abbondi (a non-public area owned by Longwood) where the Turkey Vultures would make light work of it.


Where there were young trees we often had to pull off strangling invasive vines from them, they were usually a cocktail of Lonicera japonica, Persicaria perfoliata (Mile-a-minute) and Celastrus orbiculatus (Oriental Bittersweet) - again another one that doesn’t seem to pose such a problem in the UK and has ornamental value of pretty berries and autumn colour of yellow leaves, but here I could see that it was a different beast, it starts off like an unassuming seedling of a tree, then starts to become a vine and actually physically strangles the trees by coiling around them and sinking into its cambium. It also forms a low tangling mass in the understorey of the meadow ready to trip you up, as well as rising upwards with stems rooting readily and berries produced abundantly poised to be dispersed by birds and mammals. There is actually a native Bittersweet - Celastrus scandens which flowers and berries grow at the top of the stems rather than all over and is non-aggressive, but the integrity of its genetics is threatened because it hybridises easily with the oriental one - the same battle as the spanish bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanica invading the UK native ones Hyacinthoides non-scripta.


Poison Ivy - Toxicodendron radicans which is the plant dreaded by many humans because of the urushiol oil that it contains that induces irritation, pain and rashes even if dead/ dormant, is also a vine that climbs up trees - but it is a native plant that has its place amongst the others, and it does not strangle the tree - more rather it climbs up vertically and seems to co-habit with each other fine. Other invasives particularly on the top US unwanted list include Lythrum salicaria, Berberis thunbergii, Acer platanoides and our very own ivy - Hedera helix. Rosa multiflora is a problem too forming impenetrable prickly ground cover masses, but they are being naturally being dealt with by the rose rosette virus spread by mites. The two main invasive grasses are Japanese Stiltgrass - Microstegium vimineum and Arthraxon hispidus, both are annuals at least and were often what we had to pull away patches of to get to bare ground for planting.


The management of a ‘natural land’ is still a messy business in terms what’s required to stop it being overtaken by what’s unwanted. Burning the meadow definitely helps keep it under control, but certain trees and shrubs do not die from this method, they are just temporarily knocked back and ready to come back again and with a vengeance once the situation is right. The Pyrus calleryana and Elaeagnus umbellata are good examples of this, in that burning them just makes their roots grow more underground, potentially creating a bigger unyielding problem ready to take hold when the opportunity is right. So though chemicals are not the first port of call, they are still used and this is one of the instances where the unwanted saplings are physically slashed or maimed and sprayed with Garlon - active ingredient triclopyr ester derived from plants and prohibits auxins. The idea is to maim the plant so that the chemical goes into the plant, but it is kept alive so that the plant is still active and would draw the poison to its roots.