Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Japanese barberry

Berberis thunbergii

Image of Japanese barberry at Observatory Hill SNA

Japanese barberry invades natural area all across Wisconsin.


Leaves & stems: Clustered in tight bunches above spines, the leaves are simple, alternate, small, and oval to spatulate shaped (wider at the tip than the base). Leaves may be green, bluish green, or dark reddish- purple depending on the cultivar. They leaf out in early spring. Plants have single sharp spines at each node. If a stem is cut, it will reveal that the inner bark is yellow. Branches root freely when they touch the ground. Flowers: Flowers are cream-yellow colored, bowl-shaped with notched edges and 6 petals, and small (1/3” wide). They occur individually or in small clusters of 2-4, blooming in mid-spring. Fruits & seeds: Small, bright red, oblong berries occur on narrow stalks both singly or in clusters. Berries persist on shrub into winter. Seeds are readily dispersed by birds. Roots: Creeping, shallow roots are tough. Interior of roots are yellow. Branches root freely when they come into contact with ground. Similar species: European barberry or common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is also a non-native invasive (classified as Prohibited) but has spiny, toothed leaves and flowers in a long raceme. Source:  Wisconsin DNR Invasive Species website.


Found in woodlands, wetlands and prairies. Prefers well-drained soils and sunny habitats, but will survive and produce fruit in even heavily shaded environments.


  • Creates dense thickets where nothing can grow.
  • Shade tolerant, drought-resistant, and adaptable to a variety of open and wooded habitats, wetlands, old fields and disturbed areas.
  • Spreads vegetatively through horizontal branches that root freely when they touch the ground.
  • Harbors Lyme disease-carrying ticks.
  • White-tailed deer avoid browsing barberry due to the spines, giving it a competitive advantage.

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October 2020

Thursday, 29 October 2020

UMISC 2020 Pathways to Success

Image of UMISC 2020 logo

Next week, November 2 – 6, 2020, groups from across the upper midwest will meet online for their biennial invasive species conference, UMISC 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this conference will be a virtual event. One of the principle sponsors is the Invasive Plant Association of Wisconsin (IPAW). This group includes academic researchers, DNR invasive species experts, land managers, and private landowners who share the latest information.

I will be attending this year and will bring you updates on presentations each day. In following weeks, I will follow up with selected presenters to get additional insights for property owners.

The UMISC 2020 covers both land and water borne invaders. My posts will focus on land based species. Check out the UMISC 2020 program to see a listing of the conference events.

Included this year are tracks for terrestrial and aquatic species, as well as a track specifically focused on forest health. In addition, there in an interdisciplinary track that covers topics like public outreach. Special event sessions this year including several by the Woody Invasives of the Great Lakes (WIGL) Collaborative. WIGL is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) program.

If you want to attend, there is still time to register for the conference. Cost is $95 for regular attendees, $75 for IPAW members (as well as member of other sponsor organizations), and $55 for students.

Stay tuned and pass on any questions by using the comments section at the bottom of each post.

June 2020

Friday, 12 June 2020

Buckthorn Blaster Rocks Brush Clearing

Image of Buckthorn Blaster with gloves, loppers and pruners

Meet a revolution in cut stump treatment … in a 4 once bottle.

Some ideas are incredibly obvious, once you see them. The four once Buckthorn Blaster is just that kind of product. This simple herbicide applicator will change the way you cut and treat invasive brush on your land. If you are like me, you hate using spray bottles to apply herbicide to the cut stumps of wood brush. Most of us use the best two dollar squirt bottle we can find and curse a few weeks or months later when it quits working. I hate going home at with blue fingers on my gloves. I swear under my breath too many times every day when I pull the trigger and nothing comes out only to have the next pull shoot a stream of chemical out; most of which misses the stump. Expensive pressurized sprayers are bulky and must be frequently pumped up. The Buckthorn Blaster is a simple four ounce plastic bottle with a dense foam stopper that applies chemical to cut stumps much like a liquid shoe polish applicator. If you can polish you shoes, you can treat stumps with the Buckthorn Blaster. I use a 1:3 tryclopyr to bark oil mix, which is hotter than some folks but not as strong as others prefer. Both the herbed and bark oil are expensive. A 24 ounce spray bottle of cut stump mix cost around $10.00. It is common to go through half of that bottle during the course of a day. During the two hours I used the Buckthorn Blaster, I used just two ounces of chemical mix. The Buckthorn Blaster reduced the chemical use by one third. The number of stumps increased at the same time. Again, because the chemical only lands on the target stump I got more stumps treated between refills. More stumps with less chemical means 2-3 better invasive control in the woodlot. My spray bottle will often drip a little, especially when it tips over on uneven ground. The Buckthorn Blaster never drips. It only puts chemical on the stump where it is pressed. That means no off-target damage of nearby native plants. The small four once size makes it easy to carry in one hand while wielding a hand pruner in the other. When using loppers, I can hold the bottle while simultaneously cutting brush. Being more efficient means clearing more brush in less time. The bottle comes with three dense foam tips and a tool for changing tips.  Removing the tip to refill the bottle takes some care and can be a bit messy. That is my chief complaint but paper towels make the job fairly painless. The Buckthorn Blaster can be used with any cut stump liquid herbicide mix. I keep my bottle in a ziplock bag and toss it in my daypack, along with hand pruners, whenever I walk the property. It rides in the thigh pocket of my chaps when doing chainsaw work. What could be more convenient for taking care of that nasty shrub that pops up along the trail?

“More stumps with less chemical means 2-3 better invasive control in the woodlot.”

Finally, while the $8.49 price tag is a bit steep for what it is, the money goes to support the work of a really great organization. The North American Invasive Species Management Association (NAISMA) supports those battling invasive species of all types. They are a key sponsor of the Play, Clean, Go program that educates boaters about aquatic invasive control. For private landowners, Play, Clean, Go provides boot cleaning stations at public trailheads; encouraging hikers to clean their boots. That helps prevent the spread of garlic mustard and Japanese hedge parsley seeds. The NAISMA biennial conference brings together academics, practitioners, landowners and land managers to share the latest information about invasive plants and animals across the US and Canada. Consider joining NAISMA when you buy your buckthorn blaster. Tap into their deep well of conservation management experience.

[Update 8/9/2020] NAISMA now sells five packs of Buckthorn Buster replacement tips. I don’t know about you, but I treat hundreds of stumps from large boxelder to tiny buckthorn sprouts during a single day. the rough surfaces and jagged edges take their toll on the foam. The Buckthorn Buster ships with three tips, however, I find myself replacing tips daily when treating tiny sumps that poke holes in the foam. Fortunately replacement tips cost $3.99 for a five pack.

Monday, 08 June 2020

All About the Show

Image if showy orchid

While not the biggest, the showy orchid makes in color and beauty for its relatively modest size.

If last week was all about the squirrel farm damage and chaos caused by invasive plants, this week was the flip side of the coin. 

Gone to Seed

Image of garlic mustard in seed

Garlic mustard in full seed is especially impressive by the light of dawn. Soon those pods will burst; each plant casting hundreds of invasive seeds.

This is crunch week for clearing garlic mustard. Plants are done blooming and ripening seed heads. In a week or two, pods will dry and split open. As they do, seeds will be thrown several feed away. Many will take root and begin growing within weeks after hitting the ground. Others will lay dormant for up to five years., waiting for favorable conditions.

Image of large construction bag filled with garlic mustard.

Much of the seed will wash downhill with the next rain, spreading the infestation downstream and across property lines. That is why it is so important to pull, bag and remove as many plants as possible before those seed pods burst.


Blooming Trees

Lots of flowering trees made their appearance this week. Among them were three rather similar looking mid-story shrub like trees. The pagoda dogwood, maple leaf viburnum and nannyberry all have clusters of small simple white flowers. All three provide important food for pollinators in the spring while birds eat their berries throughout the summer.



July 2019

Wednesday, 03 July 2019

How the Environment Affects Plants

Recently, I was asked by a young Asian student, “Do plants raised in a good environment flourish and grow bigger than plants raised in a bad environment?” At first, I wanted to dismiss what seemed like a silly question. As I headed for the creek to check on some honeysuckle and buckthorn that got treated last week, I thought more about that question. The more I though about it, the more interesting his became.

Broadly speaking, his assertion was probably true. The answer, however, changed with the species. Also, it depended on how the budding scholar defined the environment. Finally, the answer would hinge on what the young questioner thought was good and bad. Answering his question first meant understanding that the environment includes the soil, water and air.


Soil differs in its composition naturally from one place to another based on the underlying geology, as well as surface layer history like glaciation and floods. Soils fertility differs based on those factors. Human activities, most notably farming, have changed the characteristics of soil in many environments. Erosion and poor agricultural and horticultural practices have depleted many native soils. Likewise, resource extraction and industrial activities have polluted soils in many areas.


We are all familiar with water pollution and its effects on plants. Acid rain harms plants, causing deforestation around the world. Toxic discharges from factories, leaking landfills, and pathogen laden runoff from factory farms pose threats to plants downstream.


The air has several factors to consider. Increased CO2 from burning fossil fuels benefits some plant species, while others are unaffected or even suffer because they evolved to thrive in an atmosphere with less carbon dioxide. Toxins discharged from smoke stacks and tailpipes definitely injure most plants.

The reason I did not declare these impacts as good or bad is that under certain circumstances a particular plant species in a specific location might benefit from certain environmental degradation. Even if many native plants suffer, there are bound to be tough species that will move in and take their place.

This morning, I am walking along the floodplain of a small creek in the driftless area of Wisconsin. Because a large block of very hard rock split the southward advancing glaciers for millennia, glacial ice never scoured this part of Wisconsin like it did the rest of the state.

Farming Along the Creek

However, for the past century, farmers using poor practices caused erosion of tons of topsoil from surrounding hills. That topsoil landed in the valley below, covering the wetland adapted species and degrading the wetlands so they are far less capable of controlling flood events. The rains this spring, along with flooding last summer mean for a second year in a row, the farmers on either side of the creek will see disappointing harvests.

Aside from the money lost by the neighboring farmers, erosion has devastated those buried wetland plants and seeds. On the other hand, other plant species brought downhill with the soil, blown in by the wind or dropped by passing birds and animals now thrive in fertile topsoil with plenty of moisture. The creek corridor is a riot of growth, though most of it is invasive species that do little to recharge the groundwater or control flooding.

So what is the “correct answer” in this situation? It seems to me that the loss of topsoil from the uplands, as well as the loss of wetland plants, loss of groundwater recharge, and increased flooding downstream, more than offset any benefits.

Southern Wisconsin was a disturbance dominated ecosystem before Europeans settled here nearly two hundred years ago. Wildfire sparked by lightning and Native Americans burned the land every few years. The result was a landscape dominated by prairie and savannah. This kind of landscape is called an early successional ecosystem because it dominates soon after big disturbances like windstorms and fire.

Early Verses Late Succession Plant Communities

Today, most of the land is farmed, but woods and scrublands dominate the areas too steep or wet to crop. These woody species cannot tolerate fire. They are called late succession ecosystems because they move in after those first sun loving pioneer species. When fire disappears from the landscape, shade tolerant trees like cherry and maple are able to take over. They crowd out the scattered sun loving oaks, which cannot regenerate under the closed canopy of the darkened woodlands.

Many of the plants that once covered the prairies and savannah are now rare; with many threatened or endanger of extinction.

Effects of Farming

Because their root systems were so deep and they recycled nutrients so efficiently, those prairie and savannah plants built up fertile topsoils 3–8 feet thick. Now, through changed land use and erosion, most of that topsoil can be found more than a thousand miles south in the Gulf of Mexico.

Corn and soybeans still grow in tremendous abundance, thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. That abundance allows farmers near my home to export their bounty around the world. Is that good or bad? Row crops suited for agriculture grow large and yield hundreds of tons per acre. That grain feeds millions of people around the world, How can that be bad?

Heading for Home

My notebook now holds the shrub kill observations that brought me here this morning. Almost without thinking, my entries show that the herbicide sprayed on the basal bark of those invasive shrubs is having its intended deadly impact. By fall they will be dead. In a few years their carcasses will fall over and their trunks will decay. If I continue to do my job, their offspring will join them. The native seeds I plant in their place will begin to stabilize the soil along this little trout stream.

Heading back to the truck my musings on plants, as well as good and bad environments come together. I think about the “land ethic” from A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold first made this profound way of looking at the world popular. He wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”



November 2018

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Why Are Invasives So Bad?

photo of Phragmites also called common reed grass.

Phragmites creates stands so dense that wildlife cannot move though it.

For the past year, I have been fielding questions about conservation, biology and invasive species on the forum Quora. It gives me a chance to hear the questions and concerns that people have and give back to the community. Questions I think Conservation Digest readers might be interested in have found their way into the FAQ section of this website.

This question appeared last week. Below is my response. After reading it, I hope you see what motivated me to create the website and write this blog.

Invasive garlic mustard, honeysuckle and buckthorn have all but wiped out spring wildflowers from the woodlands of southern Wisconsin. Japanese knotweed crowds out everything along stream banks where it becomes established. Wild parsnip causes serious chemical burns when the sap gets onto the skin. Cattails take over wetlands reducing open water for waterfowl and displacing the native sedge, reeds and wetland wildflowers. Phragmites (common reed) creates such dense stands that waterfowl cannot use the wetland.

Those four sentences capture a small portion of the problems caused by invasive plants that plague natural areas in Wisconsin. They only begin to scratch the surface of the issues created by invasive species.

Check out our new webpage About Invasive Species to learn more about the problem and how to prevent new invaders from getting a foothold in Wisconsin.

October 2018

Friday, 05 October 2018

Are there biological control success stories for invasive plants?

Yes, the invasive perennial purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was the scourge of midwestern wetlands for twenty years. Marshlands turned a pinkish purple every summer and fall because virtually all competition was eliminated.

Researchers chose Galerucella beetles because they knew Galerucella feed on loosestrife in Asian and Europe where it grows naturally. Local school children and non-profit organizations set up beetle rearing projects; releasing the natural loosestrife predator to feed and lay eggs on the exotic invader.

Note that biological control is not eradication. Wetlands rebounded because the number of beetles rise and fall with those of the loosestrife. Because of the Galerucella beetle, purple loosestrife is now just another member of the wetland community and no longer the big bad bully pushing everything else out of its way.

The reason why the Galerucella beetle is a rare success story is that biological controls must be thoroughly vetted prior to introduction. Scientists must ensure that the beetles are effective, but even more critical, that they do not cause other unintended consequences. Researchers exposed Galerucella beetles to pretty much every native plant they were likely to encounter in the their new home, but safely in isolated greenhouses. Researchers made sure the beetles would not harm native plants.

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April 2018

Saturday, 14 April 2018

What are the negative things about Invasive species?

Living things (plants, animals, fungi, etc) evolved in communities. Plants turn sunlight and CO2 into sugars and starches that form the base of the food chain for all the other living things around them. Very slowly, those species that were best adapted to fit into their niche in the community survived and thrived. A type of equilibrium exists that changes slowly as the community itself changes.

Invasive species are really bad because they can seriously disrupt the existing plant and animal communities, often changing the character of their adopted ecosystem. Native species suffer, diversity is lost and the now out of balance community can become subject to damage from soil erosion and other maladies associated with a sick environment.

When species are dropped into a community where they did not evolve, some die off immediately because they cannot survive. Other species fit in more or less nicely, eating and being eaten by others; finding and inhabiting that new niche.

Some species, when introduced, into a new community are able to exploit the new home in ways that their new neighbors cannot. One example well known in the upper Midwest is garlic mustard. This plant sprouts from the ground in late February or March, just as soon as the snow melts. It continues growing through the warm months and into early winter, only going dormant in the deepest of the cold months. It also produces a tremendous amount of viable seed. Finally, its roots put out a chemical that inhibits other seeds from sprouting. Most of the micro organisms, insects and animals that would eat it in its native Europe do not exist here, so it has few natural enemies.

Hope that was helpful. Let me know if you have specific questions or need additional information.

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Can invasive species drive the extinction of indigenous species?

Absolute extinction is not the only danger, serious disruption to an ecosystem occurs much more often than the obliteration of a single species.

When I finished college in 1983, I left Wisconsin and headed out to build a career in other parts of the county. The woodlands were notable for their lovely displays of spring wildflowers like trout lilies, dogtooth violets, jack-in-the-pulpet and lady slipper orchids. Upon my return in 1997, I found that nearly every woodland in southern Wisconsin was ringed by dense stands of honeysuckle bushes, buckthorn and biennial called garlic mustard. These three plants had completely changed the character of the woodland environment across an entire region. Woodlands chocked by these invasive plants saw almost no sunlight getting to the soil. Slopes and small ravines lost tremendous amounts of topsoil, eroded because the native plant community had been replaced by a small number of plants, none of which was good holding or building the soil.

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December 2017

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Landowner Help for Common Reed Control

Picture of standing man with common reed towering over him.

Photo by James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service,

Landowners across southeastern Wisconsin know about common reed, an invasive grass that is even tougher than cattails. If this invasive species is on your hit list we have good news for you.


Common reed (Phragmites australis), also called phragmites, invades moist habitats including lake shores, river banks and roadways. It has extensive rhizomes that can quickly spread underground and take over large areas. These rhizomes store energy, as a result, the plant can recover from cutting, burning or grazing. 

Common reed alters hydrology and wildlife habitat, increases fire potential, and shades native species. It can spread through root fragmentation, long runners above ground, and sometimes windblown seeds or cut stem fragments. Phragmites is on the Wisconsin DNR Chapter 40 list of prohibited and restricted species.

According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Phragmites is the tallest wetland grass in Wisconsin. It grows upwards of 14 feet. Seed heads are visible from August to September, and it has a round stem, long, wide leaves. Its prominent plume-like seed head that is whitish to purplish in color. Be aware, there is a variety of Phragmites native to Wisconsin that forms less dense patches (you can generally see through the stand) and flowers earlier (July to August).

The Midwest Invasive Plant Network (MIPN) is working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Region 9, to host a series of 3 webinars in January and February featuring case studies of the restoration of sites invaded with exotic pest plants.


Illustration of common reed seed head.

The first event will be on Tuesday, January 16th, 11:30 – 12:30 CST. The presentation is titled “Bridging the Gap – New Insights on Technology and on-the-ground Management of Phragmites.” The presentation will be given by Steve Apfelbaum, Founder and Chairman of Applied Ecological Services out of Brodhead, Wisconsin.

For free registration, please visit the MIPN site, and make sure the email address is in your approved contacts to receive the webinar link.