November 19 03:09 PM

Invasion of the land snatchers?

Area man hopes to thwart progress of resilient autumn olive in area

July 14, 2010
TRI-CITY AREA — Richard VandenBossche has 30 years of experience under his belt when it comes to watching nature take its course around his home.

On five of the ten acres, VandenBossche helps things along some. He mows and trims and keeps things tidy. For the other five, he's has made a sort of a deal.

"God takes care of the back five, and he doesn't cut grass," VandenBossche chuckles.

But he finds himself working a little harder than before to keep up his end of the bargain now that he's discovered autumn olive.

The vigorous shrub (Elaneagnus umbellata) originated in eastern Asia and was introduced to the U.S. in the 1830s. Its rapid growth rate and ability to adapt make it easy to spot around the area, though residents may not know the nature of this non-native species.

Autumn olive reaches heights of 10'-20' with just about the same diameter. The branches have sharp thorns, and the oblong, pointed leaves look silvery on the underside—the glimmering color is very noticeable when the wind blows.

For years, it was touted as an ornamental plant that made excellent wildlife habitat. The Michigan DNR hailed the tough shrub's ability as a food source for birds and mammals alike. Lapeer County was one of just seven in the state selected to host the autumn olive, which was planted here.

Oblong, pointy leaves with silver underside make autumn olive easy to spot.
Today, it's on the invasive species list—and for good reason.

VandenBossche says in just a few years he's watched the autumn olive creep across his wild meadow taking root everywhere.

"I first noticed this plant on both mine and my neighbor's property about ten years ago," VandenBossche says. "I realized then that it was not only taking over any uncut areas, but also choking out many native species, including small trees."

Indeed, because the autumn olive can fix its own nitrogen, it can thrive in less than ideal conditions. The plant's unique photosynthesis rate (conversion of light energy and carbon dioxide into sugar for food) is the key to its aggressive nature. In a 2008-09 study by researchers at Calvin College, a device measuring CO2 going into a leaf and water coming out put the invasive shrub over the top. White Ash readings were 29, 30; Red Maple 31, 26; Oak at 37, 34 and autumn olive at 56 and 57. Its quick consumption of carbon dioxide helps fuel its consumption of the landscape and everything with it.

"Periodically as I drive around the county I notice it spreading throughout this area," VandenBossche says. "It can be found not only countywide but also along I-69 from east of Capac to west of Flint and south to Rochester."

Perhaps the best illustration, notes VandenBossche, is at the intersection of Rochester and Bordman roads. Right behind a 'Welcome to Dryden sign' a vacant field is being overtaken by the pointy-leafed shrub.

"Once you recognize this busy shrub you will be amazed and distressed when you see how much it has infiltrated the Lapeer area," VandenBossche says. "We can only hope this story is a wake up call for our state to heed an immense problem. Currently autumn olive is part of our landscape but left unchecked it will become most of our landscape."

VandenBossche points to neighboring Illinois, which issued a ban on planting autumn olive.

"They are losing valuable pasture, recreation and open land to this invasive bush," VandenBossche says.

He hopes to thwart a similar fate here by spreading the word on the aggressive shrub.

Autumn olive is tough to control, says Mike Champagne, director and naturalist at Seven Ponds Nature Center.

"It's a nasty invasive that's hard to control and grows in a very prescribed way that by the time you notice it it's already fairy large," he says. "It's not uncommon to see what was a nice meadow filled full of large autumn olive."

The best method of control is to "stay on top of it," Champagne adds. Just mowing the small plants at least once a year will keep them from spreading.

For larger shrubs, cut the branches and paint the stumps with herbicide or brush killer.

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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