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Columbia Missouri is a Midwestern college town with a high level of education among its citizens.

Photo by Jay Buffington

Based on the percentage of adults with graduate degrees, Columbia is the thirteenth most educated municipality in the United States.

MKT Trail with Honeysuckle saplings growing on the rocky cliffs

It is also known as a “green city” with many parks, recreation trails, bike lanes, recycling programs and a large segment of voters who consider environmental issues a priority.

Rock Bridge State Park – Outer Ozark Border

Our outdoor recreational areas are popular and appreciated. Many take pride in living in a place with so much natural beauty and the opportunity to enjoy it.

View from Forum Nature Area in Columbia, Missouri

In many ways Columbia is not a typical Midwestern small city.  If there is any place where you would expect people to be aware of a widespread ecological disaster unfolding in front of them… in plain sight… you would think it would be Columbia, Missouri.

MKT trail & a severe Asian Bush Honeysuckle infestation (all the green bushes!)

Of course, no city is perfect. It is hard to imagine a modern American urban area that is not covered in concrete and sprawled out on the edges.

Imported plant infestations that begin in the city eventually infest the areas we have set aside to remain as wilderness.

Gans Creek Wilderness area Rock Bridge State Park

Our parks, which have some truly outstanding examples of central North American scenery, are becoming drastically altered.

Watersheds and the surrounding mature hardwood forests of our traditional landscape are being devastated by exotic invasive vegetation.

MKT trail – With a green Honeysuckle infestation out to the horizon

Within the City itself, all areas that are not mowed or paved are relentlessly being dominated by Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

Asian Bush Honeysuckle – Impenetrable – over your head

In other areas Wintercreeper is smothering all surfaces it comes into contact with.

Wintercreeper Infestation – MKT trail

Most city dwellers are not aware of the radical transformation occurring within their backyards. These changes taking place are a drastic ecological break from the past… and it is relentless!

Severe infestation – Solid Honeysuckle over 10 feet tall in a forested area

Landowners who are aware of the problem can, sometimes with great effort, restore and recreate a diverse traditional Missouri landscape.

The “double whammy” in Columbia, Missouri – Honeysuckle & Wintercreeper in a backyard in Columbia

Those who live near the leading edge of infestation can take preventative measures. These are much easier than restoration work in areas of severe long term infestation.

The green bushes are Honeysuckle that are beginning to infiltrate Rock Bridge State Park

How can it be that such a drastic change to our ecology and traditional landscape is completely ignored?

Mature Oak Hickory forest with a heavy infestation

How can we let our backyards become breeding grounds for noxious vegetation, rather than showcases that celebrate our unique and beautiful natural landscape?

Ancient Central Missouri landscape – Rock Bridge State Park

How can we let our undeveloped areas become overrun by evasive species without reacting?

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How can Columbia, this “green” city that appreciates its outdoor resources and natural heritage, let this happen?

Severe Wintercreeper and Honeysuckle infestation right off the heavily traveled MKT trail.

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Wintercreeper: It stays green all year and covers everything. Why is it here?

It seems the nursery trade brought it here and everyone who bought it assumed it would be a nice addition to some corner of their yard.

It seems everyone assumed there would be no unintended consequences to bringing an untested ground cover into Missouri.  As it stands now, any plant from any part of the world is welcome here until its the damage is done.

In fact, it seems like even when the damage is done, there is no effort to stop its spread.

Honeysuckle & Wintercreeper - The new monotonous Missouri

Our traditional landscape is sacrificed for exotic plants that are not particularly that aesthetically pleasing or functional.

Traditional Missouri in winter

Nothing illustrates the utterly devastating damage from Asian Bush Honeysuckle better than a visit to the local creek

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A creek in Columbia, Missouri

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A creek in a woodland in St. Louis, Missouri

In Honeysuckle infested areas, a solid wall of 15+ foot honeysuckle will completely cover the bank, thereby severely limiting access

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Honeysuckle on the bank

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The green tunnel

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Outside the green tunnel – the creek is underneath the wall of Honeysuckle

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In a traditional Missouri landscape, access to wetlands, creeks, and river banks can be difficult, with tall grasses and forbs, bushes and small trees.

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Native plants along the bank

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In general, however, creeks and wetlands will be accessible and visible from a distance and few plants will continually block access along the banks

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No Honeysuckle yet – in full sun!

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A traditional Missouri landscape – Rock Bridge State Park

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Creek banks can be seen and approached with ease

A creek bank in a woodland – Rock Bridge State Park

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Clydesdale park used to be called Gravois Creek Park because Gravois Creek runs through it.

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Gravois Creek

Located in South St. Louis County, it is a rather large area of forests, woodlands and fields located in the middle of an urban area.

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An relatively ABH free woodland in the park

It even contains what looks like a restored savanna, possibly maintained by controlled burning.

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Savanna with native grasses

I first visited this park in 1979 and much has changed over the years.  The trees are taller and the creeks are wider (due to more severe drainage spikes from the surrounding expanses of concrete).

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Unfortunately the biggest change is that the park is heavily infested with Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

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There is a creek down there!

I have a lot of good memories of exploring this park 30 years ago and I can remember when the park preserved the typical landscape of the Outer Ozark Border:  Fields were mostly grass and the woodlands were clear enough of brush that you could see out to the horizon under the trees.

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When I try to recreate in my memory the way the park used to be, I am certain I can recall a few areas with large Asian Bush Honeysuckle bushes.  They were mostly on the margins of the forest or in scattered areas elsewhere.

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Now the park is nearly covered with it.

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Clueless park visitor who thinks needing a machete in Missouri is normal

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Walking down trails in the old fields is more like walking along tall hedgerows.

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Walking in the forest is extremely difficult with so many ABS bushes that are waste high or over my head.

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In other words, a visit to the park is not the same experience it used to be.

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Fortunately there is some good news for the park.  In many woodland areas I notice quite a few remnant populations of the original surface vegetation under the layer of Honeysuckle.

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Gooseberry – a native edible

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I don’t know if this is because the infestation is more recent in the deeper shade, or if the original vegetation in these areas is more resilient.  I suspect it is a little of both.  A visit to a nearby park later in the day showed a similar woodland area with few remnant original plants remaining underneath the invasion.

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Infested woodland – Jefferson Barracks Park

Since a lot of areas still retain remnant plant communities, parts of the park could be restored as refugia.  Perhaps signs could be posted along the trail to let visitors know that this is what Missouri is supposed to look like.

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It looks like they have done some restoration work here

I also notice a spot along the creek that retains the appearance of my old friend, Gravois Creek Park (now Clydesdale Park).

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I only see a few ABH bushes here

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Jefferson Barracks Park is a large park along the Mississippi River in suburban South St. Louis County.

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Mississippi River – Jefferson Barracks Park

Along with ball fields, pavilions and paved trails, the park has many historical sites.  At one time, much of the park was a military installation.  It was an important Army base during the Mexican American War, the Civil War and World Wars I and II.

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The military base was founded in 1826

Ironically going to this historical site can give those of you who live in rural Missouri a view of the future, for the park seems to have caught the Asian Bush Honeysuckle invasion early.

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The “wall” begins where the mower stops!

Visiting the park will give the visitor a good idea of what several decades of Asian Bush Honeysuckle infestation looks like.

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3-6 foot space beneath the ABH canopy

Near the parking lot, the first thing one notices is a huge field, at least half of which is covered in Honeysuckle…

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Pasture no more – That is mostly ABH

…the other half forms some sort of Honeysuckle savanna, with scattered bushes around the remaining grass.

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Prediction: Eventually pastures throughout the state will be threatened by Honeysuckle.  It seems ABH likes full sun and eventually will penetrate the turf.  A big question is how does having cattle, goats or horses effect the spread of ABH.  Hopefully grazers will eat the young plants.

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Honeysuckle choking out a tree

At the other end of the field is a patch of lightly shaded woodland that is completely covered by mature Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

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A solid wall behind the tree

These Plants seem at least 15 feet tall and nearly smother all plant life below them.

 

 

 

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A large area of the park is completely covered with these mature plants and the surface is bare beneath them.

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Welcome to the future of Missouri

Prediction: Without active intervention, eventually ABH will cover large tracks of land in Missouri with a nearly impenetrable tangle of brush.   Landowners will find access to their land difficult and recreational and productive activities limited.

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It is everywhere that isn’t mowed here

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The base of a large ABH

Eventually I came across a beautiful expanse of mature oak hickory forest.

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Once again, the infestation has been here for a long time.  As in other locations, the deeper shade has slowed, but not stopped the spread of Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

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The entire forest is like this!

At the edge of the forest, in the stronger sunlight, the Honeysuckle formed a solid wall over 6 feet high.

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Eye level

Once inside the forest the bushes are more scattered and at varying heights.

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Traveling through such a well-shaded forest should be easy in a traditional Missouri environment.  The ground cover should be, at best, knee high with only scattered small trees and bushes.

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Traditional Missouri Landscape – Rock Bridge State Park

In this case however, traveling such a small distance was slow going and treacherous.  There were a lot of snags and it was difficult to walk in a direct line.

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Difficult to see and find footing

Underneath the honeysuckle, there were a few remnants of the original plant communities.

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Baby ABH with remnant native plants

I noticed more relics of the original forest floor in nearby Clydesdale Park.  I don’t know if this is because the infestation is older here or if the original forest had more shade, and therefore fewer groundcover plants originally.

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Monoculture with a few trees

I did spot some bare patches underneath the trees without Honeysuckle or anything else. This would imply an area in deep shade that would have only been covered by leaf matter to begin with.

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A branching ABH in front of an old forest tree

Imagine mushroom or deer hunting in a forest like this!

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Prediction: Eventually Missouri’s forest will be nearly impenetrable and consist primarily of a broken layer of Honeysuckle will trees poking through them. Relic plant communities will be isolated and restricted to certain areas where light conditions are favorable. Opportunities for recreation will be limited and forest productivity of various sorts will be degraded.

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Archery?!

Eventually I walked over toward a historic site near the Mississippi River.  Scattered across the lawn were a series of humongous old savanna trees.

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Ancient White Oak from the 1700s

These trees have a broad shape, indicating that they have always lived in full sunlight.  One White Oak tree had a marker proclaiming it 30 years older than the city of St. Louis and thus from the 1730s!

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Although the grass species are not native, the trees are. I would refer to this part of the Park as offering a vision of a traditional Missouri landscape.

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Traditional Missouri – a view to the horizon

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Traditional Missouri – lawn with native trees and no Honeysuckle!

Nearby along the bluffs of the Mississippi river I spotted another ancient White Oak, only this time in an unmowed area and therefore choked with Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

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Ancient White Oak with a modern nightmare!

Jefferson Barracks Park is both a trip to the past and a vision of our future.  Eventually, without intervention, I see no reason why the rest of state won’t meet a similar fate.

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A vision of the future for the rest of the state

Driving out of the city, I notice the heavy infestation continuing to the outer suburbs of St. Louis.

 

Gan's Creek - Rock Bridge State Park - Boone County, Missouri

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is located in Boone County, Missouri.  It is an outstanding example of the natural beauty found in the more rugged parts of the Outer Ozark Border.

Outer Ozark Border - in dark green

More specifically, the park is located in the Rockbridge Oak Woodland/Forest Low karst hills (Landtype Association G).

OZ12G Rockbridge Oak Woodland/Forest Low Karst Hills- area in white

Unfortunately its location near Columbia, Missouri puts it on the edge of the Asian Bush Honeysuckle invasion.

Degraded woodland in Columbia Missouri

Infiltration - A seedling found deep within the park!

Fortunately, much of the park retains its traditional landscape with pockets of mature Oak Hickory and Maple forests

A "clean" forest - almost! Can you spot the Honeysuckle?

Notice the clear view to the horizon under the trees

Within a mature Oak Hickory and Maple forest, the canopy keeps the forest floor relatively clear of thick vegetation

In general, the grasses and forbs do not get tall under the trees

In a traditional Missouri woodland, there is a diversity of plants on the forest floor

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In a traditional Missouri woodland, the ground is mostly visible and clear

Areas near streams are often clear of heavy brush and accessible

Clear to the shore

Without Asian BushHoneysuckle, a variety of details are visible from a distance

Ancient landscape in central Missouri

Traditional Missouri landscape

Ancient Landscapes in central Missouri

Even within a cedar grove, the view is clear

Below the cedars

The pond is visible and accessible without ABS [Asian Bush Honeysuckle]

Old abandoned fields in Rock Bridge State Park.

Since Honeysuckle is only found in scattered locations in Rock Bridge State Park at this time, traditional Missouri landscapes are still available to the visitor.

Please consider volunteering to help keep the park clear of Asian Bush Honeysuckle.

Asian Bush Honeysuckle infestation in a Columbia Missouri woodland

We have set aside the land for preservation…

Now lets keep it clean and clear of invasive exotic species!

Honeysuckle growing beneath the Gan's Creek Wild Area sign

Taking responsibility?  

Well why not!  Why wouldn’t you change your landscaping plans to preserve Missouri’s unique natural heritage and traditional appearance?

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Ancient white Oak

As is often the case, doing something worthwhile requires a worthy sacrifice. Unfortunately we’ve ignored the invasion of Asian Bush Honeysuckle (ABH) for a long time and many locations are now heavily infested.

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As you can imagine, removal creates massive brush piles with large branches.

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Still growing

Other areas are difficult to access…  such as cliffs and drainage areas….

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Can you find the creek?

…and then there is all that ABH spreading seeds in your neighbor’s yard.

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The neighbor likes all the pretty flowers!

Drastic changes to our natural landscape have occurred without notice or reaction.

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Most people (maybe even you?) will marginalize all this as just some sort of surface fabric issue…

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Eye level!

Our natural environment…  is it merely an abstract background?

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Large areas have light infestations – mostly small plants in isolated locations.

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Typically nothing is done while these windows of opportunity for mitigation is lost.

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Get ’em young!

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Levels of Infestation

Do you want to help preserve Missouri’s unique natural heritage and traditional appearance?  Well the first you have to access the damage and identify the level of infestation.

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It’s everywhere over his head – another oblivious citizen visiting a park

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Heavy Infestation: Strategy – restoration for isolated refugia.*  You might be looking at a huge brushpile of biomass and the application of stumpkiller before you are done getting rid of it.  Often Burning is not a practical option, so turning it into mulch will complicate things.

 

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Underneath a honeysuckle canopy – there’s about 4 to 5 feet  of space below the branches

Moderate Infestation: Strategy – restoration for refugia. If you are lucky and in a recently infested area, brush piles might be manageable. Fortunately Asian Bush Honeysuckle has a shallow root system, so pulling out fairly large plants in saturated soil is an option.

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This is moderate, only because it gets much worse!

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Light Infestation: Strategy – maintenance / vigilance / prevention. Hopefully restoration work is not necessary yet.  Priority must be on areas that are about to produce fruit and seed.  Locating the frontiers of moderate/heavy infestation is helpful because that’s where the birds will be actively spreading seedlings.

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Can you see one?

To remain at this level, the whole neighborhood must be involved.  Otherwise proactive interventions to maximize refugia is an option.

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Ancient White Oak, Outer Ozark Border

Remember: Asian Bush Honeysuckle (ABH) can be easy to identify early in spring and late in autumn, since it becomes green earlier and remains green later in the growing season.

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The green bushes are Honeysuckle that are beginning to infiltrate a state park

 

*Refugia: an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas