Last year, Chris Harlow and Bettina Berg pulled glossy buckthorn from their land—a lot of it. The invasive shrub has been filling in the edges of their fields in Westminster so thickly it’s crowding out native species, even making it hard to see into the woods.

“I used my tractor, a winch, and cable to pull them up,” Chris explained. “We worked five weeks on them last year—all day, every day.”

The deep-rooted shrub spreads fast and is hard to eradicate. Its berries have low nutritional value, and act like “junk food” for birds, which then spread the seeds. Chris and Bettina have been pulling buckthorn again this year: tractor, winch, and cable, day after day.

Woman standing next to tractor being used to pull invasives

The shrub is now pervasive throughout much of Windham County. It’s just one of several aggressive newcomers. “Invasive plants are a serious threat to lots of things we hold dear in Vermont,” says Pieter van Loon, a VLT forester. “They’re escaping into our woods and completely changing the habitat.”

Bush honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, Asiatic bittersweet, and others are rapidly moving into all of Vermont. These and other aggressive invasives threaten native biodiversity, and can impact human health and recreation. They crowd along roadways and riverbanks, colonize pastures, and create impenetrable undergrowth in forests.

This is why VLT has conducted educational workshops across the state, and worked with more than 40 owners of conserved land in three counties to inventory their property’s invasive plants and craft plans for dealing with them. A grant from the U.S. Forest Service helped pay for the program, which was completed in partnership with the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation.

Chris Polatin leading education workshop with groupi in forest

The aim is to empower landowners and professionals to identify and eradicate—or at least control—these troublesome plants. It’s a part of VLT’s stewardship mission to help landowners take care of conserved properties for the long haul.

Chris and Bettina are two of the landowners VLT worked with to create such a plan. Of the 380 acres they own, about half are conserved with VLT under a conservation easement donated by the previous owners. There is managed forestland and fields where they pasture a small herd of cattle. “We have left the northernmost field to grow this summer in hopes that the milkweed there will benefit the monarch population,” explained Bettina. 

“We want to leave this land better than we found it,” Chris added.

About 20 miles down the Connecticut River Valley, a similar battle is taking place on a public trail. The West River Trail comprises several sections that follow the river between South Londonderry and Brattleboro. A key section crosses a 23-acre tract of conserved, waterfront land in Brattleboro known as the Riverstone Preserve.

According to the report prepared by VLT, there are seven kinds of invasive plants there: Japanese barberry, Asiatic bittersweet, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, glossy buckthorn, Japanese knotweed, and black swallow-wort. All of these are aggressive, creating problems for native plants by outcompeting many of them.

However, some are especially problematic. Japanese knotweed, for example, spreads rapidly along riverbanks and can result in increased erosion. Japanese barberry can lead to higher rates of Lyme disease because its thorny thickets are welcome places for tick-carrying mice to breed. The dense colonies of prickly multiflora rose severely impede forest regeneration. And like Japanese barberry, its thorns can make walking or climbing through the woods unpleasant.

The Riverstone Preserve is also host to several important natural communities and rare or uncommon native plants, insects, and mussels. Some sections may be impossible to reclaim from invasives, so the management plan focuses on areas that can be restored. For instance, the plan recommends removal of a small patch of black swallow-wort, which is located along the river and spreads quickly.

two hands holding rootball of invasive plant

VLT’s role in combating invasive plants will continue, as stewardship staff members regularly visit conserved properties. On those visits, they can point out invasives, discuss ways of managing them, suggest next steps, and recommend resources to help landowners take on this challenge.

Chris Polatin, an expert on managing invasive plants, conducted several of the VLT workshops. He is concerned about new aggressive plants that are likely to find their way into Vermont, but says that the state still has time to combat them. “Ultimately, we need to have lots of people aware of invasives,” he said recently. “It all comes down to education.”

This story appeared in our 2015-16 Annual Report. Story by Tom Slayton; photos by A. Blake Gardner.