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Notes From The Field Blog

An Essay on Garlic Mustard

Posted: 12/27/2012
Posted By: Robert D. Hinkle, PhD
Original Source: Notes from the Field

Garlic mustard, an invasive plant

From time to time, I find writing so insightful and applicable to our beloved Cleveland Metroparks that I relinquish my usual monthly message to you and ask the author’s permission to share it instead. This is one of those articles, speaking of the horrific impacts of alien plant invaders and explaining why we must, perhaps forever, manage our reservations and preserves for native plant diversity.

—Robert D. Hinkle, PhD, Chief, Division of Outdoor Education

Here are the words of Mandy Henderson, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System:

Every spring, at the height of wildflower season, a bunch of us nature nuts don boots and gloves and go tromping through the flower-bedecked Eastern woodland preserves, knee-deep in wild hyacinth, Virginia bluebells, and large-flowered trilliums. We are there to wander far off trail, pulling out hundreds of plants. Wait, what?! I thought this was a nature preserve! What happened to "leave no trace"?

What happened is that, even when people set aside areas of wilderness as nature preserves, in an attempt to leave nature to her own biodiversity, sagacious devices, our influence still prevails, tracked in via our footsteps or blown over by wind or bird wing from our agricultural areas. Seeds. The seeds we track into the preserve, and the seeds that follow our cultural activities, beget alien plants that act a lot like we do: these plants consume large areas of the forest and homogenize it to their own momentary advantage. These plants, though lovely in and of themselves and benignly in balance with their native ecosystems, wreak havoc on the biodiversity of their new home in our forest understory. Garlic mustard is one such plant, along with honeysuckle and privet hedge, to name a few. Nature preserves, I would argue, are by definition storehouses of webs of interdependent biodiversity that have evolved over millennia, webs whose intricacies we are only just beginning to understand. We set the land aside to be "preserved" out of love and humility, and as storehouses of information for the future. To allow our preserves to be homogenized by plants we've tracked in makes the burning of the legendary library at ancient Alexandria look like a cigarette burn on a favorite pair of jeans. Shameful. If we're going to understand the true, unfettered expression of the land we live on, and how to live on it in respect to the native ecosystems, don't we need to have some of those ecosystems as intact as still possible? So we must preserve as much as we can (while respecting the many other ways man can live responsibly with the land), and weed what we've preserved. It turns out that rather than being no-man's lands, nature preserves are more like gardens of biodiversity. Much more than leaving no trace, we must actively go in and remove our traces.

The tradition of a give and take with the woods, by actively gardening in the woods, isn't a new one. The Native Americans who lived in the Eastern forest were active caretakers. Under their cyclical pruning, burning, harvesting, and mound building; the woods, especially along the river basins, were far from being empty wilderness lands that we have mythologized through visions of Daniel Boone hacking roadways through the underbrush. The Native Americans were, well… native. They were at home in the Eastern woods and knew how to sustain its biodiversity while apparently living indefinitely off the fruits of its bounty. While we can't replicate all of their techniques in contemporary times, we can take inspiration from them to work to restore our woods to balance. Furthermore, we can honestly look at the European near eradication of the Native American culture as a direct parallel to why we should weed the woods today. European influence on American lands has always been a force of homogenization, making every intimate home place into Any Place. What if the most recent wave of American immigrants had honored the concepts of diversity and humility from the outset, and chose to live as neighbors with the established Native Americans? What would our landscape look like today?

As strange as it may seem, pulling garlic mustard every spring is part and parcel of anchoring a personal relationship with our ecosystem. Let us reorient ourselves and honor diversity, put on our boots and gloves, and get out there together and garden our woods. Our native flora and fauna are native Americans, too. So who's with me?


—Mandy Henderson Arc of Appalachia Preserve System


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