By Timoth Meinch, Asheville Citizen-Times
Surrounded by the beautiful forests, ridges and landscapes of Western North Carolina, it is hard to imagine our natural foliage under threat.
But this will be the case without community commitment to eliminate exotic, invasive plants, experts say.
“They are not members of our community,” 82-year-old Glenn Palmer said of the foreign, invasive plants that prosper in the area. “They outcompete the natives.”
In an effort to reclaim the natural landscape, Palmer volunteered alongside the National Park Service, Asheville GreenWorks and the Student Conservation Association on Saturday. The volunteers spent the day pulling out and killing oriental bittersweet along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the U.S. 74-A exit.
The oriental bittersweet presents the biggest threat to parkway forest in this area but is only one unnatural invasive on a long list of others that choke out and overpower native flora, said Calicoe Richir, an SCA project leader.
Other invasive plants in the region include multiflora rose, honeysuckle, autumn olive, kudzu and periwinkle, also known as vinca. None of these plants are native to the region but were imported from overseas and planted here – some for aesthetic appeal and others to serve a specific function.
Kudzu, for example, which spreads an extensive, strong root system, was first used to support banks during railroad construction in the region, said the Saturday-event organizer Susan Roderick. Now kudzu, also known as the “foot-a-night vine,” and similar plants spread rampant and wild.
The threats to native plant life – and subsequent threats to wildlife – are varied
For example, “bittersweet is going to use up resources that the other plants and animals can’t get,” Palmer said.
Palmer moved to the area more than 20 years ago, and 10 years later, helped start a group known as the Asheville Weed Team. The group is a network of informed professionals, landscapers, homeowners, landowners and others who care about preserving and reclaiming the natural landscapes that define the region.
Early on, the group of about 20 community members held meetings with the purpose and function of motivating and educating others on invasive plant management and control. Members first shared insight on effective ways to maintain and reclaim balance in the ecosystem and then created opportunities to volunteer and do these things.
“The Asheville Weed Team is amorphous,” Palmer said.
Thanks to organizations like Quality Forward and Asheville GreenWorks, it has grown significantly over the years, he said. However, the invasive plants have grown even faster.
“There are parts of our landscape that cannot and will not be reclaimed,” Palmer said, noting the rampant growth over the last 10 years.
Now the goal is to maintain and reclaim designated landscapes such as national forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway and other public land. But the bulk of the responsibility and credit falls on communities that take part in projects like Saturday’s event, said Nancy Fraley, Southeast coordinator for the park service’s Exotic Plant Management Program.
“This isn’t about the park service,” Fraley said at the event Saturday morning. “It’s about the community coming together and taking action on their own.”
Roderick, with Asheville GreenWorks, is brainstorming about other ways to combat the threat of invasive plants, such as renting goats to feed on the exotic plants. Asheville GreenWorks and other organizations are also planning other volunteer opportunities, including a workday this fall.
“We really hope you’ll go back to your communities and spread this message, that invasives are harmful,” Roderick said to the volunteers Saturday.