Outdoor Encounters

By Nathan Bolls on May 4, 2023
Key identification characteristics for shrub honeysuckles are the shape and arrangement of blossoms; quartets of red (usually) berries; leaf stems come off of a branch opposite of each other; and hollow in the middle of pith of trunk and branches.

For the past four months, this column has considered a problem of serious international scope: climate change. But other undesirable changes are afoot, e.g., the problem of unnatural, invasive, “exotic” species.  This problem, though not as immediately dangerous to human welfare as is climate change, always is with us. In one sense, the problem is worldwide because the ancestral home of an invasive species into, say, eastern Kansas may come from about anywhere in the world. The extent of invasiveness depends upon the capability of the new species to survive in its new home. Some have adapted only too well, threatening to take over native landscapes. We want to highlight a particular invasive type of honeysuckle plant that is posing a serious threat to the ancestral botanical biodiversity of Meadowlark’s natural area. 

One of the features of Meadowlark Hills (MLH) that draws many residents is the natural outdoor space. From Donner’s Way to Bayer Pond, residents can enjoy walking, fishing, birding, and viewing wildflowers native to northeastern Kansas. Walking the perimeter of MLH in the fall, one can’t help but notice the tall, green-leaved bushes covered with brilliant red berries that line the pathways. Passport member and Outdoor Committee member, Dr. Valerie Wright, a retired Konza Prairie environmental educator and naturalist, alerted the committee members to the fact that these beautiful plants are Amur or bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), which has been identified as one of the primary invasive species in Kansas. Introduced into the USA from Europe and Asia in the 1800’s as décor for both home and lawn, this deceptively lovely bush adapted extremely well to this country. Its particular danger comes from producing long arching branches that grow out and over, thus blocking sunlight from other species that might be trying to develop underneath. In this way, the bush honeysuckles—unnatural, invasive “exotics”—disrupt the growth and distribution of many native species.

In response to this and several other issues concerning the health of MLH’s natural spaces, interested residents reactivated the Meadowlark Outdoors Committee in June of 2022. The committee sought expert advice concerning managing the natural spaces by inviting District Forester Thad Rhodes to visit and walk Donner’s Way. Thad complimented the riparian (streamside) system as a singular example of a natural community in an urban area; however, he went on to add: “. . . without active management (of the honeysuckle), these areas can become degraded and begin to decline from both a functional and ecological perspective.” This disruption, over time, can seriously upset both the distribution of native species in an area and the “balance of nature” that a particular combination of native species (both plant and animal) has achieved over time with each other and with their own particular patch of Earth’s crust.

The disruption both of native species and of natural balance are occurring throughout our MLH natural area. Numerous small redbud trees and other native plants are losing out to the larger, more aggressive honeysuckle bushes. Further, this trend of altering the tree and bush makeup of our woods has effects on all, or certainly most, of the other plant and animal forms we’ve come to associate with Kansas forests. For example, the numerous berries produced by the honeysuckles, eaten by some bird and rodents, are far less nutritious than berries from other plants, e.g., hackberry and cedar trees, service berry bushes, and sunflowers.

The Outdoors Committee has taken on numerous other projects such as reviving the pond, planting wildflowers along the trails, furthering outdoor education, and making it possible for more residents to access and enjoy the natural spaces of Meadowlark. However, honeysuckle eradication has moved to the top of the list. As recommended by Thad Rhodes and Bob Atchison, a retired Kansas Forester who also consulted with the committee, prioritization of targeting and removing the large areas of seed-bearing honeysuckle bushes is critical to the survival of Meadowlark’s urban forest. As we begin to do just that, we hope that the MLH community will understand that the inevitable bare spots in the woods will be temporary. We plan to nurture the existing trees toward greater health and to plant more native trees that add to the long-term strength and beauty of our own natural community.