The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is working in partnership with Bowie State University and the Maryland Park Service to complete a forest management plan on approximately 255 acres of land that surrounds the Bowie State University campus. During the last week in May, the Alliance’s forest team inventoried the current canopy cover, invasive species pressures, and regeneration potential of the existing forest; this data will be run through a program called SILVAH which will help generate guidance for how to best manage these forested acres.

Four of the forest inventory team members were from the Alliance’s field specialist team in Pennsylvania. Below you will find write-ups about some of the interesting things that they saw while completing the forest inventory!

Invasive species highlight: Phragmites australis (Common Reed)

Written by Dylan Fleisher, Forest Projects Field Specialist

Close-up picture of Phragmites australis (Photo credit: Chad Merda).

This aggressive invasive plant species was just one of many observed during the forest inventory of the 255 acres of land located around the Bowie State University campus in Maryland, US. Other invasive species observed included multiflora rose, oriental bittersweet, japanese honeysuckle, japanese barberry and wavy leaf basket grass, but out of all these, common reed has been known as one of the more abundant threats. While inventorying the parcel of land, we found multiple patches of phragmites. Some of our plots were actually completed in the middle of a field of the common reed. As you could probably guess, not many native fauna were found within these plots, which shows one of the many negative effects of invasive plants.

A person standing within a patch of phragmites towering over them, showing just how tall and intimidating this invasive species can be (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Plants are classified as an invasive species whenever they invade areas outside of their native range and cause considerable damage to the overall ecosystem of that area. Native to Europe and Asia, phragmites is an aggressive invasive that wreaks havoc across a variety of wetland habitats throughout the United States. It will grow extremely fast (upwards of 15 feet tall) and outcompete native species which in turn creates dense acres of monoculture.

Field of phragmites. Shows how extensive and dense a patch of this aggressive invasive can grow (Photo credit: Kelly Ford).

This leads to severe decline in habitat value as well as species richness in an area. It has also been documented that dense stands of phragmites have lowered water levels, clogged drainage ditches and disrupted water flow. The seeds of phragmites can be easily dispersed by the wind, wetland birds, and even ATVs/construction vehicles. Once this invasive is established in an area, it is fairly difficult to control or manage. There are various methods to tame the spread though. Understanding the extent of growth, the existing terrain, as well as the bordering native species is imperative to a successful invasive species management plan.

Three people walking with their heads down through a wetland covered in mud, dead tree limbs, and phragmites.

Phragmites patch located on site of Uhler tract forest inventory (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

The most common method of control has been the use of aquatic herbicides. The application of such herbicides should be completed by a trained wetland specialist. Once successfully destroyed, the removal of dead stalks should be a priority in order to prevent regeneration of the species. Allowing the sunlight to access the wetland floor should allow for some native species regeneration. For more information regarding Phragmites australis, check out the links below.

Edible Understory

Written by Matt Pienkowski, Forests Projects Field Specialist

As I continue to learn about forest ecosystems, I find myself taking note of edible plants (in a human context) in particular. There is something exciting about knowing which parts of which plants you can safely eat, and while it wasn’t the season for any snacks during this project, I thought I would share some prevalent edible species we saw. Please always identify with absolute certainty before eating something you forage, and only try a little bit the first time you eat a new food to check for allergies. Okay, with the fun part out of the way…

One of the first things I noticed walking into the forest for this inventory was the prevalence of pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Pawpaw was an introduction to forest eating for me, and I am constantly on the lookout for the large leaves and pale trunk indicating the most temperate member of the family Annonaceae, which includes several tropical fruits. Pawpaw grows in understory patches (sprouting via root suckering) and occurs in fertile, moist, well drained sites. Its large fruit tastes like a combination of banana and mango, and matures in late summer. I have always been an enormous fan of this “temperate tropical fruit” and I was excited to see it in such numbers! On many plots, pawpaw was the predominant regeneration we sampled, and started my train of thought on edible plants in this forest.

Two paw paw fruits hanging on a branch.

Pawpaw fruit and leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Another understory occupant we saw with some regularity was blueberry, Vaccinium sp. Most likely (based on size), what we saw was the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), although some hybrids are possible in the range we were in. I will not spend long describing blueberries here (check them out if you aren’t familiar!), but wanted to give them a shout out since I am always struck by how much we get from our forest plants, and to see such an important fruiting shrub in the wild is a fun reminder of that.

A close up on a bundle of blueberries on a branch.

Blueberry fruit and leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Finally, to give a little recognition to a less appreciated edible plant. Traveling between the 158 plots sampled in the course of this project was a widely varied experience. Occasionally, an established path or an open understory presented our teams with pleasant, unencumbered strolls. More often however, the thorny vine I’ve always called greenbrier was growing up trees, across openings, forming dense patches in the understory, blocking our way and forcing us into indirect paths and dramatic feats of flexibility to reach our next destination.

Smilax leaves and stems (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

The genus Smilax consists of several hundred species of climbing, flowering plants around the world, of which about twenty are native to the U.S. and Canada (Smilax rotundifolia – or roundleaf greenbrier – is the most common in the area and likely accounted for most/all of our sightings). In the forest ecosystems we sampled, Smilax was a prevalent occupant of the understory and was noted in a majority of our sampled plots. While it is easy to wish that greenbrier wasn’t such a substantial presence (especially while disentangling several vines that have somehow wrapped entirely around oneself), Smilax is native to these areas and provides valuable ecological services. The shoots, fruits, and leaves are food sources for wildlife including white tailed deer, rabbits, and birds, and can be especially important in the winter when the shoots and persistent berries remain a viable food source. Additionally, and the reason I include greenbrier here, the young shoots can be prepared similarly to asparagus (BEFORE the thorns appear (I cannot stress this enough)) and eaten by humans, and young leaves can be eaten raw or wilted similarly to spinach. Happy (careful) snacking!

Uhler Tract Critters

Written by Patrick Trostle, Forests Projects Field Specialist

While forest inventory work generally focuses on members of the plant kingdom, numerous animals were encountered while surveying the different plots that make up the Uhler Tract plots. Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) presence was detected across all sections of the tract, either through evidence of browsing, their droppings or even sightings of the animals themselves. Beaver (Castor canadensis) dams and fresh gnaw marks were found dotted across many of the plots with bodies of water present, indicating that their population is present and active within the surveyed region.

Gray Tree Frog sitting on a tree branch (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

While many will be familiar with the call of gray tree frogs (Dryophytes versicolor), numerous members of the survey crew were able to spot these small arboreal amphibians within their natural habitat. Gray tree frogs require either permanent or temporary bodies of water for breeding and maturation of their young, later spending their adult lives in the trees and shrubland.
Other herps (a colloquial name that we use for the organisms that fall under the field of herpetology like reptiles and amphibians) of the Uhler Tract included eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina), and the field crew was quite ecstatic to see these shy critters on the forest floor. Box turtles are generally found in areas with mesic forests, and their populations are susceptible to decline following human development., so protecting areas that are suitable habitat for them has become increasingly important.

Eastern Box Turtle nestled in dead leaves (Photo credit: Jerilyn Lapp)

Survey crew members also reported seeing ospreys (Pandion haliaetus); these large predatory birds are on the top of the food chain in the Uhler Tract and also represent important bioindicators of ecosystem health as they can be adversely affected by the bioaccumulation of toxins through the organisms that they consume.

The Uhler Tract forest inventory work was an amazing opportunity to practice the skills necessary for some of the work that foresters perform, but was also an exciting view into the wildlife that can inhabit forested areas and the ecosystems surrounding forests.

Many Ecosystems in One Forest

Written by Jerilyn Lapp, Forests Projects Field Specialist

The most intriguing part of our forest inventory work was getting to explore almost every pocket of a single forest and become acquainted with its diverse ecosystems. Sticking to trails is the best practice for preserving sensitive species and the integrity of a natural area, which only gives hikers a small window into the woods. For our purposes of future habitat restoration, however, it was a unique and fun opportunity to bushwhack through the tangles of greenbrier and multiflora rose to be able to fully characterize the site. The property included dry but regenerating clearings from bygone gravel pits, wetlands interspersed with beaver dams, pawpaw and sycamore groves, and large patches of mesic forest.

A look into a sunny wetland from the forest’s edge (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

My favorite plots were in the forest’s wetlands, where we spotted tree frogs, turtles, snakes, and signs of beavers. In addition to providing shelter and food for wildlife, wetlands supply numerous ecosystem services that increase the health of the Chesapeake watershed. They capture and slow the flow of water, filtering excess sediment and nutrients. Some of this purified water also seeps into aquifers to replenish groundwater supplies. According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, vegetated nontidal wetlands comprise about 4.6 percent of the state. Dredging, dumping, and filling have threatened both estuarine and nontidal wetlands– prior to the passage of the Tidal Wetlands Act, “over 1,000 acres of wetlands were being destroyed throughout tidewater Maryland every year” (Maryland Department of the Environment).

A small pond-like water feature surrounded by phragmites and forested land on an overcast day.

The view from the middle of a small patch of wetland (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

It was exciting to take a small part in the efforts to protect threatened habitats from development and degradation. Bowie State University’s commitment to restore its forest will not only improve accessibility for recreation and research, but preserve a continuous, ecologically-diverse system in an ever-fragmenting landscape.