One day over Martin Luther King weekend, a few expert Weed Warriors and a large number of less-experienced volunteers gathered in the wooded area behind the Politics and Prose parking lot to pick up trash and free dozens of trees from invasive English ivy. And whether they realized it or not, they played a role in solving an environmental problem: Our forests are under threat. DCist recently reported that in this case, at least, individuals can make a world of difference. All we need to do is pull some weeds.
Leading the Weed Warrior brigade that day, alongside the National Park Service and Rock Creek Conservancy, were John Burwell and Kathy Sykes. If you’ve been reading Forest Hills Connection for the past few years, you are probably familiar with their work. Burwell has been a certified Weed Warrior since 2012, and has been leading invasive species removal events at Linnean and Broad Branch parks since 2020. Sykes joined the Weed Warrior ranks more recently, and is also a certified Master Gardener who has led Van Ness Main Street’s Connecticut Avenue beautification and pollinator planting program for five years. We’d also like to introduce you to Courtney Bergeron, who took the Weed Warrior training in spring 2023.
We asked them to tell us about the projects they’ve taken on, including that spot behind Politics and Prose, which Rock Creek Conservancy has dubbed “Broad Branch/Potomac Heritage Trail” for the purpose of promoting the cleanups there. Sykes is also working on the conservancy’s mini-oasis at Reservation 630 West, and Burwell and Bergeron organize the Reno Park cleanups. Their latest undertaking: The thicket visible from Reno Road at Fessenden Street.
At all of the cleanups described below, volunteers of all experience levels are warmly welcomed and trained, and gloves and tools are provided.
Broad Branch/Potomac Trail
Like the other two parks, this is National Park Service land, tucked between 36th Street and an alley parallel to Nebraska Avenue. Nevada Avenue is its northern boundary, and the parking lot behind Politics and Prose is to its south. And here’s a fun fact: “This is part of Broad Branch. The tributary of Rock Creek starts here,” says Burwell.
At least four nonnative invasive species have made homes here, and that has not escaped the Park Service’s attention.
“In November, I was approached by the National Park Service’s botanist, Ana Chuquin, to see if I was willing to take on a new area of the Rock Creek Park that needed of attention,” says Sykes. “We met in December to survey the area and develop a plan.”
That plan includes removing these four invasive plants (with descriptions provided by Sykes):
1) Amur honeysuckle. Also known as bush honeysuckle, which originated in eastern Asia, Amur honeysuckle interferes with forest and native plant restoration. The fruits of this shrub also lack the fats needed for growing baby birds, and the toxins it gives off harm native insects, and can cause behavioral changes in amphibians or even lead to their demise. It is easily spread by birds that consume its fruits and eliminate the seeds far from the bush.
2) English ivy (Hedra helix). First brought to us by the European colonists, English ivy is quite capable of killing tress. By climbing and girdling the trunk, robbing the tree of nutrients and if not removed, it can topple a tree by its weight in a storm. It is also a haven for a bacteria called leaf scorch that affects native trees including elms, maples, and oaks.
3) Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea or aureosulcata). One of the fastest growing plants, bamboo will quickly take over an area and push out native vegetation and trees. Their roots can grow two to three feet deep, and are harmful for the environment.
4) Five-leaf or five-fingered aralia (Eleutherococcus sieboldianus.) Originally from China, this invasive shrub is new to our area. A patch along 36th Street is thriving.
Another challenge is the park’s longtime use as an illegal dumping ground. “During the Martin Luther Day clean up a few weeks ago, we removed an enormous number of bags of trash, many beer bottles and cans, yard waste and very heavy construction waste,” said Sykes. (Editor’s note: We were there and picked up a large amount of vintage bathroom tile, likely discarded after a renovation.) “John Burwell made ‘No Dumping’ signs to hopefully remind people that this nature preserve is not a place for garbage.”
Restoration is another part of the plan. “Our goal is to restore this patch of the Rock Creek Park to a healthy and natural environment where native birds, butterflies and amphibians can once again call home,” said Sykes.
Sign up for Broad Branch/Potomac Heritage Trail cleanups through Rock Creek Conservancy’s volunteer calendar, or on site. Volunteers meet in the Politics and Prose parking lot.
Reservation 630 West
Kathy Sykes, in her words: Last year, we were working on the north side of the stream that runs through Reservation 630 West, formerly Melvin Hazen. One of the priorities was to remove invasive vines as well as Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) seedlings. The Tree of Heaven is a host plant for the invasive spotted lanternfly that only recently was identified in Rock Creek Park by one of our Weed Warriors, Walker O’Neil. Spotted lanternflies feed on tree of heaven at all its life stages. The spotted lanternfly is capable of damaging trees and plants but under greatest threat are vineyards. If you appreciate wine, you will want to join us removing these seedlings in spring.
Volunteers will also learn the unique smell of a tree of heaven seedling. Around November, the mini oasis was expanded to encompass the south side of the stream too. Since then, we have been freeing trees of English ivy using the window technique (come out and volunteer and we will teach you how to free a tree).
In addition, we have been clearing the forest area of other invasive plants such as wintercreeper, porcelain berry vines, winged burning bush and amur honeysuckle. The vines of English ivy and porcelain berry were quite thick and large because volunteers are just starting to clear and restore that section of Reservation 630W. In addition, the mat covering the ground of English ivy undisturbed for years has made its removal even sweeter.
There clearly is a visible difference in the park since volunteer stewards have gotten involved. With the energy and determination of volunteers of all ages, the invasive groundcover that was 100% [of the original mini-oasis] has dropped to less than 5% or 10%. That is progress. There is more work to be done, and when we have cleared an area, we will plant native plants to give the forest a chance at regrowth.
Reno Park – Reno Road and Fessenden Street
In John Burwell’s words: In the fall of 2022, I was contacted by a local resident [Courtney Bergeron] who had volunteered with me in other locations in the park about what we could do there. We surveyed Ft. Reno Park with Rock Creek Park botanist Ana Chuquin, and prioritized a plan of action. I began leading volunteer events in January of 2023 in an area close to Alice Deal and the water tower with neighbors and students.
Together, co-leading eight volunteer events and working individually throughout 2023, we have removed bush honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, relieved trees of invasive porcelain berry and English ivy, filled bags of trash and protected native trees. Students have been a big help and can earn their required community service hours.
Courtney Bergeron: When we started removing the invasives in the stand of trees just below the salt dome, and to the west of the Deal school building a year ago, the task seemed really daunting. There were invasive plants all throughout this section of the park that hadn’t been touched in many years and they were taking over the hillside. With the help of members of the National Park Service Weed Warrior volunteers, Deal students and their parents/guardians, and neighbors we have made great progress in the past year. John Burwell has been instrumental in this process, showing everyone the ropes, providing tools, helping to navigate our interface with the National Park Service, and cheerfully championing the cause.
In another session or two we will finish clearing things out in this area and move our attention to other parts of the park that need the same treatment. This project will take many years given the size of the park, but we have a great group of volunteers who are willing to help and by working together we are making terrific progress!
Burwell: We recently surveyed the area along Reno Road and Nebraska Ave with Chuquin and will hope to make a difference there.