Letting nature take its course

by Jan Spann

Some of the most important lessons in life can go back to the simple rules we learned in kindergarten: be nice, play fair and share with your classmates. The same holds true in nature, and we plan and plant our landscapes to show the harmony and diversity, picking just a few of the thousands of options available. And all would be swell if nature could be harnessed so easily. But just like the schoolyard bully who won’t share or takes another kid’s turn, nature has some nasty thugs.

These bullies in nature can begin as charming and lovely additions to the landscape, and it’s only after years of experience do we recognize their true nature and consequences. Invasive plants can be exotic species, imported for their beauty or usefulness only to upset the natural balance. Without natural enemies such as insects or disease, these aliens thrive in their new environment and soon become the problem.

In 1999, former President Bill Clinton issued an executive order defining “invasive species” and mandating specific federal actions. And fortunately for Central Arkansas, an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas has made this her research specialty.

According to Dr. Katherine Larson, it’s easy to identify the existing problems with invasive species, but predicting what’s next is much more difficult because it can only be done to a limited extent.

“Once a plant has invaded an area, scientists can identify at least some of the factors that make it a problem,” Larson said. “But rather than consider what to avoid, just plant natives. It’s a simple way to keep from contributing to the problem of invasive plants, a problem that can cost a lot of money and effort to clear up when those invaders escape to the wild.

“Lists won’t protect us from the next invader, but ecosystem restoration allows us to identify what we should plant.”

An example of ecosystem restoration research is the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve on the UCA campus. This valuable piece of nature serves as a working classroom and learning lab for campus educators in the biology department. Larson can envision expanding the scope of this classroom to teach homeowners and K-12 students about the balance of nature.

“This piece of land has insects and plants that have lived cooperatively for hundreds of years,” explained Larson. “Nature doesn’t give us do-overs, so this undeveloped tract of prairie offers an exceptional education not just for our students but also for the community and beyond.”

Well regarded in her field, Larson has authored several scientific papers and been a project partner in the development of conservation actions to control exotics and preserve natives. She’s also smart enough to make the scientific jargon relatable to the average gardener.

Larson and her graduate students have engaged the community through talks at the local library, at Ecofest and at Woolly Hollow State Park, using Conway’s native prairie remnant as a model to show how backyards can be converted to beautiful spaces that support native species.

Asked to consider additional uses of the nature reserve, Larson envisions native seed workshops with gardeners and homeowners seeing examples of native gardens on site.

When pressed to educate homeowners on what not to plant, Larson identified several alien and native existing threats. “You’ll find Japanese honeysuckle for sale at a premium price when the native Trumpet or Coral honeysuckle are better choices,” she said.

A big problem is the Bradford pear, genetically engineered to have its unnatural balloon shape, which makes it weak and short-lived. The real concern, however, is that the Bradford is grafted onto a Callery pear, an unpleasant and quite invasive tree, so the smart choice is to avoid this package of perilous pears.

Others on the no-no list include privet of any kind, English ivy, winter creeper and nandina.  

The Jewel Moore Nature Reserve has seen infestations of sweet gum and red cedar, two native invaders, so the biology professors and students host an occasional controlled burn. Fire is essential to maintain the pioneer prairie, mimicking what nature does to clear out scrub trees and allow the grasses and wildflowers to spring up from the ashes.

Few universities have had the foresight to retain undeveloped tracts and only now recognize the value in its educational capacity as well as its environmental significance. While the corner of the nature reserve at Dave Ward Drive and Farris Road will soon make way for a Greek Village, the future of the native prairie lies with the UCA Board of Trustees, which has issued a moratorium and will re-open discussion in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, UCA scientists and other interested alliances are keeping watch over this aptly named jewel that has many lessons in sharing to teach the community.