Wild Ideas: A decade of fighting plant invaders in Buck Hollow   

For a decade, a quiet struggle has been waged against invasive plants in a special plant community in the Buck Hollow area of Shenandoah National Park (SNP). The original volunteer leader in this effort, Rappahannock County resident Robin Williams, will lead a walk there on Jan. 13 to talk about the progress she and other volunteers, working with park staff, have made and what it means to the relatively rare plant community in the hollow.

Robin, a certified Virginia Master Naturalist in the Old Rag Master Naturalists (ORMN) chapter, has served on its board and on the board of the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Piedmont chapter, which is hosting the walk. (See sidebar below for more details on the walk.) This past Sunday (Dec. 30), Robin and I explored the project area and talked about what she plans to cover on the walk.

As Robin reminded me, I had introduced her to Jake Hughes, SNP’s lead biological science technician and manager of the Buck Hollow project, during a garlic-mustard pull in the park in 2008. She was interested in finding an invasive-plant project in the park for ORMN to take on, and Jake suggested Buck Hollow. “We’re trying to protect the integrity of this plant community where it exists in good condition on the site, and attempting to preserve or restore the ability of it to regenerate where it has been degraded or destroyed by past land use and exotic plant invasives,” Jake explained in an email about the project.

Jake’s an easygoing guy who has cheerfully answered questions I’ve had about plants in the park over the years of writing this column. He also shows dedication to invasive removal in the park and appreciation of any volunteer assistance he gets. Robin noted that he was a big help in her preparation for the upcoming walk.

The project area is not far from the Sperryville entrance to the park and includes land on both sides of the Thornton River. The original scope of the Buck Hollow project included removing invasive plants on 10 acres on the north side of the river and east of the trail, and then on 30 acres on the other side of the river. But it became apparent over the years of the project that keeping invasives at bay for the just the few acres near the trail required a huge effort.

Two intact walls made by early settlers remain within the project area. By Pam Owen

The Buck Hollow Trail, which starts at U.S. 211, runs through the project area, crossing the river. The hollow’s native ecosystem was disturbed as far back as colonial times, when settlers logged much of the land for farming and for the wood. Most of the trees in the project area, Robin says, are probably not much older than the park, which was established in 83 years ago. Humans and their livestock helped introduce and spread many of the invasives before the park was established.

With the highway running on one side of the initial work area and power lines along the river, which are maintained by power-company crews, human activities continue to disturb the area. Instead of expanding their work to the other side of the river, Robin says, the volunteer crew started working on the other side of the trail, to the west, where invasives presented a threat of reinvading the cleared areas, she adds.

While the plant community in Buck Hollow is not known to include rare species, the combination of plants is rare in the park. Vegetation in this type of plant community is generally rich in diverse native species. Microhabitats and disturbances, such as from flooding, frequently change the species composition there, which is dominated by tuliptrees, American sycamores, sweet birch, northern spicebush and broadleaf enchanter’s-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana, in the evening primrose family). Such communities also generally include northern red oak, red maple and white ash. This one is also loaded with common hackberry trees, whose deeply grooved, corklike bark make them easy to identify.

Robin points out the gnarly bark on one of the many common hackberry trees in the Buck Hollow project area. By Pam Owen

The ORMN volunteers working on the project have changed over the years, with only Robin remaining among the original members. Not long ago, she passed the leadership role on to another Rappahannock County resident and ORMN member, Charles Fortuna. Anywhere from one to eight ORMN volunteers have shown up to work twice a month on Fridays, fall through spring, weather permitting, Robin says. In the fall and winter, they cut woody species, such as Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. In the spring, they pull out garlic mustard, Oriental ladysthumb and woody seedlings and saplings.

Park staff treat some of the more aggressive invasives by carefully applying herbicides that require certification to use. They also handle the summer chores of removing more ladysthumb, woody seedlings and stiltgrass, and hacking down and treating the stumps of tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus). While removing invasives, everyone needs to avoid harming several fragile wet areas, denuding the Thornton River or disturbing homesite remnants, including two stone fences and a well.

“What is interesting about the place now is what in not there rather than what is,” Robin says. “We have removed a lot of the invasives.” But, as she acknowledges, this is a Sisyphean task: no matter how hard the crew works, most of the invasives return. “If you ever stop, it will go right back to what it was,” she explains, because of the human traffic along the trail, “birdies pooping out seeds” and people using the area as a dump. With its closeness to the highway and to the park’s unmonitored entrance, Buck Hollow is an illegal dumping ground for everything from yard trimmings (including invasives) to asphalt. Even more appalling, at least one person regularly uses the trail as a latrine. The ORMN volunteers help remove these human messes, too.

Robin carefully unwraps an invasive Japanese Honeysuckle vine from around a sapling. By Pam Owen

Robin received a special “V.I.P.” pin from the park for the first 200 of the many hours she put into the Buck Hollow project over the years. Robin said she and her fellow volunteers enjoy the comradery of working together as well as the results of removing invasives. “We thought we would have to plant new native plants originally because there was so much invasive stuff, but in clearing and opening up the canopy, and letting the sunlight come in at proper times, . . . the native plants have come back on their own beautifully.” Along with saplings of the trees mentioned above, these include native sedges and ferns, such as royal fern and fragile fern; grasses, such as wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium); and a host of wildflowers.

Native wood oats grow along the Buck Hollow Trail. By Pam Owen
Native wood oats grow along the Buck Hollow Trail. By Pam Owen

Among other wildlife, the native plants attract lots of butterflies, particularly forest species. Robin says she often stops by the area during the warm season just to see what butterflies are visiting the wildflowers, or puddling in the water that often collects in the parking area and on the trail. She’s seen hackberry emperors, wild indigo duskywings, snouts and swallowtails, among others. One year, while removing invasives, she even found Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars in the area. She hopes to see the adults of this species, which are “gorgeous . . . easily as magnificent as the monarch,” flying around in the area one day.

© 2019 Pam Owen

VNPS Second Sunday Walk: Invasives Control in Shenandoah National Park’s Buck Hollow
On Jan. 13, at 1 p.m., the Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society will hold a walk in the Buck Hollow area of Shenandoah National Park, near Sperryville, even if parts of the federal government are still shut down.

The focus of the walk is the progress that has been made in invasive removal from a relatively rare Northern Blue Ridge Montane Alluvial Forest plant community there, led by Robin Williams, who serves on the chapter’s board and is also a certified Virginia Master Naturalist with the Old Rag chapter. She started the volunteer effort on the site, partnering with SNP, in 2008 and still participates.The walk is easy, but Williams plans to go off trail through some underbrush on fairly level ground. Sturdy shoes and a walking stick are recommended. The walk will not cross the Thornton River, but participants are welcome to do more exploring on their own.

The main goal of the walk, Williams says, it “to talk about what we’ve done,” the progress they’ve made toward invasive removal in the 10 years since the project started. She’ll also cover how to identify and remove some of the most invasive plants on the site, particularly vines, and what not to remove, including poison ivy — and why — and point out some of the many native tree species in this mountain-floodplain plant community, such as American sycamore, tuliptree, common hackberry, American elm and alternate-leaf dogwood.

With space limited at the Buck Hollow parking area, the VNPS chapter asks participants to meet in Sperryville and caravan from there. The walk is free, but the number of participants is limited. Those interested should RSVP to piedmontvnps@gmail.com. Directions to the meeting place and details about the walk will be sent in return. There are no facilities at the site. (For more about Robin and the Buck Hollow project, go online to this week’s Wild Ideas column, at rappnews.com/wildideas.)

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”