The Bear Mountain Barberry Battle

The crew leaders and volunteers on the Invasive Species Strike Force go to work on removing barberry plants at Bear Mountain on June 6.

The crew leaders and volunteers on the Invasives Strike Force go to work on removing barberry plants at Bear Mountain on June 6.

Up until now, I’d never really given much thought to the barberry.

I’d sort of known it as a source of edible fruit, mainly from reading Marsha Mehran’s Babylon Café novels set in 1980s Ireland.

But after volunteering for a morning on an invasive species removal crew up at Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park in New York this past weekend, I found myself knowing a lot more about the barberry (Berberis spp).

Mainly that it’s got lots of little thorns that are a real nuisance to pick out of your fingers, even if you were smart enough to wear garden gloves.

As a lot of us know, it was National Trails Day in the United States on June 6. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, of which I’ve been a member for the last five years or so, was holding its annual day of hikes, trail maintenance and workshops up at Bear Mountain.

I signed up for two events: one was an afternoon hike along a currently-under-reconstruction part of the Appalachian Trail (more on that in a later posting). The other was a morning’s work with the Invasives Strike Force.

An invasive species is, basically, any species of plant or animal that is introduced to a certain geographic area, and then starts posing some kind of threat to the native species.

I remember having to do a paper on invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for science class when I was in high school; I don’t remember which species I wrote about specifically, but I remember that there was something in there about plankton and small sea life that hitched a ride in the ballast water in freight ships.

A lot of us have probably heard of plants like kudzu, the vine that will grow over anything and everything in its path in (what seems like) seconds. It’s the scourge of the southeastern United States but it’s apparently made its way up into the northeast and elsewhere. There’s also honeysuckle and wisteria – sure, they’re pretty and they smell nice, but they get out of control really fast.

The barberry was favored in prior years as a form of natural fencing because of all those thorns. In fact, we were told that there had been hedges of them around the animal cages at the Bear Mountain Zoo to keep people from getting too close.

The NYNJTC has regular training sessions for volunteers who want to learn how to identify and/or remove invasive plants from along the conference-managed trails in the area.

*

We were assigned to a slope up behind the Bear Mountain Inn, near Hessian Lake and the access trails for the AT.

Our assignment: pull out whatever plants we could, and whichever ones we couldn’t, cut them down to the stumps and mark them with a flag so the crew leaders could come by and treat them with some herbicide later on.

Everyone was issued a set of long-handled pruning shears, and there was a big bag of garden gloves to borrow in case we hadn’t brought our own. A few of us learned the hard way, though, that barberry thorns can poke through garden gloves – I heard one guy comment that only leather gloves can really withstand them.

I set to work on a thicket of bushes located at the edge of the AT’s access trail.

Some of the smaller plants came out easily, while with others we had to dig around the roots with our hands. And then there were some bushes that were so big and deep-rooted that pulling them out would have been next to impossible. So out came the pruning shears and we’d chop away, exposing the moist, bright yellow wood inside the bark as we cut.

Both the uprooted plants and the pruned branches were tossed onto a spread-out tarp in the middle of the work area to be hauled away.

The plan is to re-plant the slope later on with flowers and tree seedlings that are a little more local – different kinds of oaks, hickory, black viburnum and so on. As we took out some barberry down closer to the lake, we ended up giving a witch hazel sapling more room to breathe.

Every now and then, one of the crew leaders would come around and ask for a tally of how many plants we’d pulled.

“Okay, how many have you pulled out?”

“Fifteen.”

“Seven.”

“Four.”

At one point, I had to go ferreting around for my first-aid kit so I could extract a splinter-sized thorn from my index finger. (The team leaders had their own first-aid kit, of course, but I’d brought my own.)

And as an extra fun challenge, there was (of course) some poison ivy growing under some of the bushes. But as of this writing, it’s been a few days since the trail work and I’ve not had to buy any calamine lotion, so I think I’m in the clear.

Poison ivy, thorns and other obstacles aside, we made excellent progress. We’d cleared the entire slope, save for a few bushes here and there, by noontime. By that time we were all hot, sweaty and ready for lunch. The weather had started out as iffy and overcast, but the sun had decided to come out around 11 a.m. or so.

So it was time for us to step aside for the next crew to take over – for us, the great battle of the barberry was over for the time being.

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