For most people, the city’s parks are a haven of solitude, with birds chirping and small children playing on nearby swing sets.
But invasive plants are threatening Wichita’s century-old parks by killing young trees and creating dead zones where no other plants survive.
“Some of those honeysuckle vines are climbing the old oak trees, and the vines are sometimes five or six inches in diameter,” said Pete Janzen, author of a book on Sedgwick County birding. “It carpets the understory so no native trees even start. There is no next generation of trees.
“If something isn’t done now, someday in our kids’ lifetime, there won’t be any oak trees in Oak Park.”
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Combating the problem, which is becoming an issue in cities across Kansas, will take a lot of work and a lot of money, the latter of which is in short supply in Wichita.
“We have so few resources right now in the park’s maintenance department that we can’t even keep up with picking up the trash,” said Wichita City Council member Janet Miller. “We just don’t have the number of employees anymore in keeping up with these types of concerns.”
But even if there were the manpower, the plants won’t be easy to battle.
“It is very serious,” said Jim Mason, naturalist at Wichita’s Great Plains Nature Center. “We are having good luck using chemicals. But because of seeds established in the soil prior to the killing, we will be dealing with it for several years to come. It has gotten the upper hand. …
“The resources and time it will take to deal with it is a big problem.”
Native to Asia, bush honeysuckles were introduced in North American gardens in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they were used as ornamental plants. But the bushes have thrived so much, they are threatening the future of long-standing woodlands throughout the nation.
So concerned is Janzen that earlier this year he sent an e-mail to area birders and contacted city officials. He called the invading plants “insidious Little Shop of Horrors alien invaders.”
“Food-bearing native plants such as buckbrush are virtually wiped out and the vines are all over the majestic oaks and hackberry trees,” Janzen wrote. “I despair that anything can be done to remedy the situation. It would take a major effort and a lot of cooperation with the park dept., Wichita Audubon and other interested parties.”
Not everyone in the birding community sees the invasive plants as a crisis. Some point out that the honeysuckle also attracts birds.
“It is a touchy subject,” acknowledged Wichita birder Paul Griffin.
“I am a newcomer to serious bird watching. But the old-timers would like to see the park back where it was, which wouldn’t have the honeysuckle. We are butting heads a bit, I think.
“We’ve got the big oaks, and you never want to endanger those. But I think we need a balance. We would not have near the bird population in Oak Park that we do today if we took away all the honeysuckle.”
And because the honeysuckle remains green during the winter, it attracts kinglets, thrushes and robins, Griffin said.
Oak Park, in Riverside, is one of the city’s oldest parks.
It is a designated Wichita Wild Habitat area, with wetlands, a memorial stone arch and a man-made pond that some people have nicknamed the Giant’s Bathtub. Nestled between two bends of the Little Arkansas River, the 38-acre park is filled with bur oak, hackberry, elm and other trees. It is the only habitat of its kind within Wichita.
Birds use the brush for cover and feeding. At least 200 species of birds have been reported in the park and 60 to 70 species of butterflies.
Some come because of the honeysuckle. They are attracted to the flowers in the spring and the red berries that form in the fall.
“The birds eating the berries are the issue,” said Nicole Opbroek, forest health specialist for the Kansas Forest Service.
“Each berry contains six to 10 seeds, and how many berries are on the bush? And from a wildlife perspective, they can grow so thick, deer can’t move through them. …
“The thing is they need to be controlled now because in the future we have the possibility of losing the integrity of our urban natural areas.”
Almost all the parks in Wichita are battling with these plants: purple loosestrife, Johnson grass, bind weed, red cedars, lespedeza, musk thistle and more.
‘Nip it in the bud’
And, it is a problem not just for Wichita. On the state level, at least four other cities are addressing the problem: Kansas City, Lawrence, Manhattan and Topeka.
The Kansas Forest Service received a $300,000 grant this summer to help battle the plants. The funding is for three years.
“This will take multiple years to spray and kill back, spray and kill back,” Opbroek said.” Untreated, within 50 years or so, you may have park-like situations, but it won’t be the woodlands we have now.
“Nothing else will grow beneath these invasive plants. There will be a heavy competition between water and nutrients. There has even been some literature that suggests these plants submit chemicals toxic to other plants.”
The tall, older trees already are approaching the end of their lifespan. It is the younger ones that are most at risk, Opbroek said.
“It is important for people to nip it in the bud and catch it early instead of waiting for the parks to be obliterated,” said Jeff Hansen, board member of the Kansas Native Plant Society.
For Wichita, it may mean volunteer groups will need to help. Already two Boy Scout troops have helped park officials clear areas within the parks.
“It will take good old-fashioned, back-breaking work,” said Warren McCoskey, superintendent of Wichita’s park maintenance.