CONESTOGA, Pa. (WHTM) — The Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve in Lancaster County is renowned for its spring wildflowers. While wildflowers sprout on their own each year, the Lancaster Conservancy and its volunteers work to manage invasive species and prevent them from impacting the growth of beloved spring mayflies.
On a Saturday morning in late March, about 15 volunteers gathered at Shenks Ferry to uproot invasive garlic mustard plants.
“Garlic mustard is a biennial plant, which means it will last around two years, and then it is a prolific seeder, and so it can very easily take over land if left unchecked,” explained Keith Williams of Community Engagement. coordinator of the Lancaster Conservancy.
The volunteers picked garlic mustard along the trails and carefully climbed a hill, gathering around 250 gallons of the invasive plant in just a few hours.
“It’s surgical removal,” Williams said. “The garlic mustard comes in at the same time as the spring ephemera, so we definitely have a chance of doing as much damage trying to remove the garlic mustard as if we just left it there.”
It’s a bit of a Catch-22 – they can remove the garlic mustard but risk trampling the species they’re trying to protect, or they can leave the garlic mustard but risk it spreading from unbridled manner and surpasses spring ephemera.
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“These spring mayflies can be 20 years old, and that’s their only chance to make sugar, make carbs, and reproduce the rest of the year. The rest of the year they’re basically dormant,” explained Williams, “and so if we were to step on this plant and inadvertently break this stem, there is a good chance that this individual 20-year-old plant will die now.
This is why visitors are not allowed to leave the paths of the nature reserve, and this is why the volunteers who leave the paths to pull weeds are taught to do so very carefully, intentionally placing their feet so as not to harm wildflowers.
Plants or other species that aren’t native to an area are more likely to dominate that area, Williams explained, because they don’t have natural predators or other factors that help control populations of native species.
Garlic mustard is invasive in Pennsylvania – Penn State Extension says it was introduced to the United States by European colonizers and first documented in New York City in the late 1800s – but not all non-native species end up necessarily being invasive.
Non-native species exist in an area they did not originate from, Williams explained. Among non-native species, there are naturalized organisms that assimilate into the ecology of their new location without taking over the ecosystem, and then there are invasive species, which are non-native species that dominate their new location with no natural population control to keep their numbers in check.
Some of the invasive and non-native species around Shenks Ferry are “landscape escapees” that were intentionally brought into the area for landscaping and then moved to other locations through natural processes. Others were brought to the area for conservation purposes, such as preventing erosion, but then had unintended impacts, Williams said.
Williams said the painstaking work of the volunteers who harvested the garlic mustard last year paid off. They extracted about 700 gallons from the Shenks Ferry plant and other reserves managed by the Lancaster Conservancy. At the Shenks Ferry Reserve, Williams has seen lasting effects of their efforts, with a hillside covered in garlic mustard last year being cleared of the plant this season.
Volunteers returned to Shenk Ferry for a second day of garlic mustard in April, but Williams said invasive species management work continues throughout the year and at multiple reserves. Individuals can volunteer at the Lancaster Conservancy to help, Williams said, or they can take steps at home like landscaping with native species to mitigate the spread of non-native and invasive plants.
Of course, all of this work is to ensure that the ephemeral spring wildflowers at Shenks Ferry can continue to thrive. Wildflowers typically peak in color around Easter, Williams said, but visitors can also see unique plants before and after that.
Williams reminds those visiting Shenks Ferry to stay on designated trails and leave no trails to protect the wildlife of the reserve. Learn more about visiting Shenks Ferry here.