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Volunteers take on scourge of Wichita parks

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 11:40 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

With only gloved hands and shovels, a small volunteer army battled a nasty invader at Oak Park amid Saturday morning’s rain.

Once again, the Wichita Park and Recreation Department used the public to keep bush honeysuckle, a plant native to Asia, from over-taking another city woodland.

Warren McCoskey, Parks and Recreation maintenance supervisor, said few native plants can compete with the invasive species that has been used for landscaping for many years.

“It has a nasty habit that it usually leafs out in late February and holds its leaves until after Thanksgiving,” McCoskey said. “It grows dense enough it shades out about everything else trying to grow underneath it.”

Wichita is just one of many cities in the nation battling the problematic shrub.

At Oak Park, it’s already replacing native wahoo and buckbrush, both popular plants with wildlife. New generations of the park’s famed giant bur oaks seedlings are also severely threatened by bush honeysuckle.

As well as having a thick crown shading sunlight, the plant’s shallow root system also grabs rainfall before it soaks to the deeper roots of most native plants, McCoskey said.

But because the roots spread barely below the leaf litter, McCoskey and others are able to use volunteers to make sizable dents in Wichita’s bush honeysuckle problem.

Jim Mason, a city naturalist, said sizable bushes need their trunks cut through, and the stumps sprayed with a herbicide. The vast majority of the plants, however, are removed by simple pulling or pulling after the roots are severed with a shovel.

Saturday’s crew was about a dozen adult volunteers from the Wichita Audubon Society and similar groups. Groups much higher in number and much younger in age have helped in the past. Pawnee Prairie, Chisholm Creek and Sim parks also have been invaded by bush honeysuckle.

Several Boy Scout groups have donated time and about 75 kids in the Mayor’s Youth Council literally pulled time at the park in November. Most have had a pretty good time.

“It’s one of those instant gratification things. It’s there, you pull on it and it’s gone,” McCoskey said. “It’s hard work but the workers can see the results. You get a bunch of Scouts, and they can get a lot done doing this all day long. It gets to be a competition and they’re having fun.”

Easy to find

Fortunately bush honeysuckle is easy to distinguish from native plants. “They have a hollow stem,” McCoskey said as he snapped a twig from a bush, showing a clear hole up its center.

After some instruction, Saturday’s volunteers got into a steady rhythm of snapping a twig, finding it hollow and pulling the plant from the ground. In about an hour’s time they had a pile of pulled bush honeysuckle big enough to fill a small dump truck, and lightning flashing in the sky overhead.

Scheduled to last about two more hours, McCoskey and naturalist Lee Ann Sack canceled the event and sent the volunteers home for their safety.

As they left, several volunteers said they’d gladly help again. Pete Janzen, a local birding expert, said it was good exercise. Charlotte Dulohery did her share with shovel and gloves, and described the process as fun.

Their efforts, and those of hopefully hundreds of others, will probably be needed for years to come.

As McCoskey and Sack walked an area cleared months ago, they said seeds from the removed plants were surely underground and ready to grow.

Birds, which are credited with probably starting the Oak Park infestation, will be spreading more seeds with their droppings. The invasive plant needs to be removed from several other parks, too.

“It’s a very prolific plant,” McCoskey said. “We’ll have to do it again, but we know it’s working.”

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