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Passion For Plants Fires Up Teams Tackling James River Park Invasives

James River Park established the Invasive Plant Task Force four years ago.
Richmond Tree Steward's Catherine Farmer and Richmond Park System's Michael Burton, Nathan Burrell and Ryan Ginsburg on Belle Isle, a priority area for the Invasive Plant Task Force. Catherine Komp/WCVE

The James River Park system is one of the most popular destinations in Richmond, where millions come to hike, bike, paddle and explore. But this “wilderness in the city” is also battling a big problem: invasive plants. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details on the James River Park System Invasive Plant Task Force and local projects and events during National Invasive Species Awareness Week.


Take a stroll on the trails of Belle Isle in January and you’ll see a lot of green.

Nathan Burrell: A good rule of thumb for winter time if it's still green, it's probably not supposed to be there.

That green, says Nathan Burrell, is likely an invasive plant. Just on Belle Isle, there’s 26 different kinds.

Montage of voices: Johnson grass, garlic mustard, paulownia, Japanese stiltgrass, privet, two types of honeysuckle, English ivy, wintercreeper, paper mulberry, tree-of-heaven.

A work area at Belle Isle with invasive privet seen on the left, right and background. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Burrell is Facility Maintenance Manager for the Richmond Park System and he’s joined by Trails Manager Michael Burton, Catherine Farmer with Richmond Tree Stewards and Ryan Ginsburg, who manages the Invasive Plant Task Force.

Ryan Ginsburg: Invasive species are one of the only environmental problems that I know of that would continue to get worse in the absence of humans.

When the Task Force surveyed the park four years ago, Burrell says they found invasives covering most of it.

Burrell: Every area of the 600 acres of our James River Park System are affected by this issue.

Invasive plants cause all kinds of problems. They grow quickly and suffocate natives. That means less food for wildlife and pollinators. Invasives contribute to erosion and reduce water quality.

Burrell: They have deeper impact than people realize.

Burrell says they can even change the soil structure, making it less suitable for natives.

Burrell: You see it take over in an area but you don’t realize it’s changing soil chemistry, and all these other animals are not able to feed off it now so there’s a lot of different things. That one invasive plant has a much broader effect on the environment than people realize.

On the west side of Belle Isle, Farmer and Burrell point out where thick invasives were cleared to expose a large rock face. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

As we walk the trails, the group points out one of the most common invasives, proviet or Ligustrum

Catherine Farmer: It’s just a nightmare.

It’s a quickly growing shrubby evergreen that can get up to 25 feet tall. Farmer says you probably have one in your own yard and it’s all over Belle Isle.

Farmer: It’s not just my least favorite invasive. It's the the biggest problem.

Komp: In the South?

Farmer: No, in the country. Kudzu grows in the sun and on the edges but privet grows in the shade, in the sun, in loamy soil, in sandy soil. It grows everywhere. It has no Predators. It's just lethal.

Volunteers use loppers, handsaws and a lot of muscle to attack these green adversaries. With grant money, they sometimes bring in professional crews to tackle the big trees. Today, they’re bringing down another dominant invasive, tree-of-heaven or Ailanthus.

Farmer: Ailanthus tree also known as stink tree, tree of heaven and and they're crazy in their growth pattern. They can produce up to 700,000 seeds on a large tree.

Invasive Plant Task Force volunteer Shaquan Jackson got involved after seeing the invasive plant signs during his visits to Belle Isle. He plans to study environmental science at VCU. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Every Thursday is a workday for the invasive crew at Belle Isle, all year round.

Shaquan Jackson: Didn’t take me long to take my jacket off.

Today it’s brisk but sunny and volunteer Shaquan Jackson warmed up quickly hauling logs and branches down the hill.

Jackson: I come out to a Belle Isle a lot and I was just walking through the trails. I like walking through the trails and I seen the signage and I always wanted to be a part of a project working outside, doing like restoration work type stuff like this and I seen the signs saying invasive plants.

Jackson is so committed, he squeezes in volunteering between classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds and work. He takes the bus here from Henrico, or if he’s got a little extra money, hails a rideshare.

Jackson: I'm trying to get my degree in environmental science so it's really my passion.

Nearby is another volunteer, Doug Steele. He’s pulling up English Ivy, the vine you see smothering trees all over Richmond.  

Doug Steele: What I do is I reach down and I try to find a root and then pull it up by the roots and most of the time the root comes out, but sometimes it snaps off and what that means is I'll be coming back later on after some grows and pulling that out. But what this does is that this gives me 90 percent success at getting it all out and it gives us a chance to come in here and put some native plants in here and let them begin to out-compete the invasives.

Steele’s retired and has been coming out here for a couple years. It’s great exercise, he says and it’s social.

Steele: The nicest people work in this kind of thing, too. I found in my life, if I do things which I enjoy and which feed my soul, then I meet other people who are similar and that's been probably the secret benefit of volunteering here.

Invasive Plant Task Force volunteer Doug Steele is also a Richmond Tree Steward. His specialty on the team is removing English Ivy. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Belle Isle may seem woodsy today, but over the centuries it was cleared of all native trees to make room for an ironworks and nail factory. Historic photos show the island with a just a few lone trees.

Ginsburg: A lot of people know this was one of the most notorious POW camps during the Civil War. So that was when there were no trees either.

In the latest area of restoration, they put signs saying “pardon our mess” so the public gets an idea of what’s going on. It might not look like much now, but they’re planting native grasses, ferns and hundreds of trees: pines, oaks, hackberries, hazelnuts and more.

Burrell: When you see the progress that's been made and the changes that are starting to happen, you do get the sense of you know, we are winning the battle. We haven't won the war yet, but we are winning the battle.

Stereograph photo taken between 1870-1880 showing Belle Isle in the background with just a few trees. (Photo: Library of Congress, from the series Views of Richmond, VA and Vicinity.)

It was four years ago this week that Richmond Stewards first came out here. Their goal, says Farmer, was to tackle 30 feet. Instead, they cleared 300.

Farmer: That was enough. We had 15, 20 people, we planted some trees. We were so pumped and we came back and we've been coming back every week since then.

And if you see Farmer and the team on a workday, she says they’re happy to chat about the project and help you spot invasives on Belle Isle and your own backyard.

Farmer: It is really hard work and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like barn raising. You see the effect. People who like a big effect, you see the invasives and before you leave you’ll see a major effect from your labor that day. And have fun and meet cool people.

The Invasive Plant Task Force works with numerous groups and in other areas of James River Park, like Pony Pasture and Chapel Island. They’ll be celebrating milestones and planning for more restoration at the end of February during National Invasive Species Awareness Week. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

This Belle Isle slope was impenetrable before volunteers cleared invasive plants like privet, English Ivy and tree-of-heaven. Photo: Catherine Komp)

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