By Victoria Greba on Feb-23-2015

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In the Summer of 2014 Cromwell Valley Park mowed a large section of meadow in the Willow Grove area of the park, a place which had once been farmland.

This field in Summer is a dense and colorful spread of waist-high wildflowers, blackberry canes, roses, and infantile shrubs, all buzzing with a mass of insects in the intense noon-high sun. The scene is typical of any once-human-managed land moving unaided back towards an eventual forest, a process which ecology names succession. Milkweed nuzzles up against dogbane and wingstem, wild garlic slips up through the multiflora rose, and an uncommonly dense and robust patch of stinging nettle enjoys the heat like nowhere else I’ve known. Soft lespedeza stuffs in every space between. I love this meadow in the Summertime. It’s alike to many of the rural fields and abandoned lands I roamed and adventured in as a child, licking my lips of soft, sun-hot blackberries, picking blueberries and flower bouquets, and treading on into the great unknown under each rock, and up into every tree.

None of the plants in the Cromwell Valley field were planted there. No one had to make a decision about which plant would do what, how each would be best suited to meet and enhance the particuliarities of the soil and the health of the other plants around it. No one ever has to do this. Life flourishes, everywhere, when we tire of the hoe or the tractor.

As ecologists, naturalists, and gardeners we take a stab at making sense of things. We may come to the conclusion that the lespedeza, as a member of the pea family, is making a greater amount of nitrogen bio-available to its neighboring plants, thus enhancing growth all around. We may surmise that the wild garlic is deterring certain insects which might otherwise over-consume its neighboring plants, and that it was the growth and death of earlier, herbaceous successional species, like dandelion, plantain, and clover, which provided the soil depth and nutrition which made it possible for all of these woody perennial species to now thrive. These ideas may be correct. In our seeking to understand nature sometimes our theories are good, sometimes they’re not so good, but always they are only the tip of an iceberg, or rather, as goes the popular Indian parable, the tail of the elephant.

Screenshot+2015-03-04+at+9Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) & Allium vineale (Wild Garlic)

Every modern field lot and thicket is a mash-up of plants from various continents. Some plants, like the milkweed, were already growing here when the first European colonists arrived. Some plants, like the lespedeza and blackberry, began to grow here some time afterwards. Ecologists tend to put these in various categories. The arrival of some plants we trace from Asia, others from Europe, some from Africa, and from nearly every place else, much like this continent’s human population.

In ecological terms, most plants growing in human disturbed areas are called pioneer species. They break ground (literally speaking) where other plants can not, and often thrive with little soil nutrition, water, or praise. Without continued disturbance these plants won’t grow in the same space forever. One species continually makes passage for the next, as dandelions give way to yarrow give way to shrubby cedar trees give way to sassafras. The living and dying of each species of plant while it’s there contributes to the richness and diversity of fungal, microbial, mineral, insect, and animal life in that place. In this way, theoretically, relatively dead hard-pan soil stripped by run-off can over great time become the deep, rich, spongy hummus of a moist and mature forest.

Most pioneer species that grow in the wake of human disturbance happen to be from other continents. Canadian thistle is one of them. Cirsium arvense, among its many other common names, sometimes bears the title creeping thistle, California thistle, field thistle, corn thistle, cursed thistle, and even lettuce from hell thistle, which may give you an idea of some folks’ opinions about this plant.

Canadian thistle probably gained a bad reputation because #1, it’s prickly. We generally disfavor plants that are prickly, and unlike many other species of thistle which grow as solitary individuals we can walk around, Cirsium arvense grows in large, thick patches. That’s #2. I guess I should also say that there is a popular idea floating around that like kudzu, Canadian thistle takes over vast areas smothering any other plant in its wake. I’ve never exactly seen that. It does form large, dense patches, often on an edge and mixed with a few other species, and that’s because, like stinging nettle, it’s rhizomatous, meaning it spreads by an underground network of horizontally growing modified stems.

field-thistle-50141_1280Cirsium arvense (Field Thistle)

There’s something else about Cirsium arvense. Its root system can grow downwards to 10 feet, some studies claim. And this is in poor soil mind you. From an ecological and restoration point of view, that’s a profound amount of organic material to both enrich and aerate the soil upon root die-off, and at an incredible depth. Such growth behavior suggests its potential role as a dynamic accumulator, a popular term used to describe deep-rooted pioneer species which mine mineral nutrients from deep soil depths and make them available to the surface layer of soil via the decomposition of its leaf litter. At least, that’s an idea anyway, and maybe the elephant’s toe.

Now back to Cromwell Valley. As you’ve probably guessed, Canadian thistle was present, thriving in the mesh of flowers, stalks, thorns, and grasshoppers on the sunny meadow slope, and the park evidently considered it a problem. In an effort to eradicate or slow the growth of Canadian thistle, Cromwell Valley Park chose to mow the field, which is, to cut back the above-ground growth of all plants present to but a few inches. Now, as I’ve before mentioned, Cirsium arvense spreads predominantly by rhizomatous network, from which emerge new shoots and in which the plants store energy in the form of sugars. Mowing a plant with a rhizomatous growth habit will do little to halt or weaken the overall growth of that plant. It will, however, prevent the forming or spreading of seeds if the mowing is done before the plant has matured them. Even this attack on the plant, however, in a meadow setting, will, once the cards are played, likely be of more benefit to the thistle than to the plants around it, who have also been cut by the management effort. Whereas thistles’ rhizomes can quickly produce more above-ground growth, any annuals in the field, or perennials with a slower recovery response will lag in their growth, and the thistle may thus gain some ground. All in all, however, plant relationships in the field will likely remain much the same, and many insect and animal habitats will be destroyed at no advantage to anyone.

When I visited the Cromwell Valley meadow after the mowing effort, I could have laughed, or cried. White, fluffy Canadian thistle seed heads littered and danced across the entire expanse of cut debris, like the innards of an old teddy bear. The purple flowers of Canadian thistle, like dandelions, will often finish forming seeds and turn to a white fluff ball even after you’ve picked them. Anyone who’s tried to dry dandelion flowers has learned this joke of nature well. Cut while in full bloom, the thousands of thistle flowers at Cromwell Valley had fallen, dried in the sun, and produced seed by the millions.

As I walked through the meadow at Willow Grove this Winter, amid lumps of wet snow, I felt sad. It’s a terrible feeling to me, the stiff stubble of woody plants under my feet, reminding me every time I trip of what was there. I thought of all the blackberry which would bear no fruit the coming Summer, for blackberries only flower on second-year canes. Those canes had just come into prominence that Summer of 2014. Now it would be 2016 before their first blooms. I felt the same about the wild raspberries, and about the flurries of white rose petals which would not be there in the Spring. I felt some bitterness at this quiet loss, one I have experienced again and again since my first walkings in life, each time I have arrived at one of so many kingdoms to find all features gone. Many of them, it could be, were kingdoms only to myself.

The meadow at Cromwell Valley will likely be much the same this Summer as it was before, roaring with growth and flowers up to my chest. Sans roses. Sans blackberry fruit. If you go say hello to the nettles, to the lespedeza pea flowers, to the crazy garlic heads, the stubby multiflora rose, the wineberry, blackberry, the mullein and wingstem, the dobane, milkweed, shiso, and Queen Anne’s lace, and the asparagus, if you can find it.

And perhaps remember that while we feel but a tail and call it lacking, the whole of nature is shining like Ganesh, raining prosperity and life, unending.

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