On a sunny spring day, it’s typical to find the average Harpswellian lounging by the shore, cutting through currents in a kayak, or simply enjoying whatever leisurely outside activity suits them best.
However, for members of the Harpswell Invasive Plant Partnership, the agenda for a sunny day is a little different. On the shore of Mackerel Cove on May 27, with a warm breeze sweeping across Bailey Island under a cloudless, blue sky, they could be found literally in the weeds, sleeves rolled up, uprooting invasive plants that threaten to harm the local ecosystem.
Before their work began, the HIPP team took a moment to admire a snake that lay coiled in the tall grass. It quickly became clear that the team members were friendly with each other, united by a shared love for Harpswell and its natural beauty. Showing no fear of the snake, each of them bent over to take a closer look.
Then the work began. Volunteer Greg Braun explained why HIPP’s mission is important.
“We are removing the nonnative plants that are causing problems for the native ecosystem,” he said. “Because they’re not native, once they get established, the natural kind of controls aren’t there, so they tend to take over.”
Among the most pervasive of the problem plants in Harpswell are shrub honeysuckles. These pesky plants tend to wind around and choke surrounding trees, making it impossible for them to grow. The best time to uproot these invaders and cut back their stems is in early to mid-spring.
Another problem plant is the Canada thistle, which not only grows more quickly than other plants, sapping them of much-needed resources, but is also noxious to the soil, making it hard for other species to grow.
Linda Wilkins, co-chair of HIPP, said it is not always easy to eliminate these plants when they are growing close to a beach, as is the case at Mackerel Cove. Volunteers remove the plants by hand, with caution and without herbicides.
“We are trying to not disturb the shoreline (because of) erosion,” Wilkins said. “There is no possible way to use herbicide within 25 feet of the water.”
Becky Gallery, another co-chair, says she is proud of HIPP’s fight against ecosystem imbalances.
“We started back in 2016, and (Mackerel Cove) was one of our first projects in partnership with the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust,” she said. “And we had big hedges of honeysuckle here at the time. It really impeded the view.”
As the HIPP volunteers demonstrated, these methods often involve hours of painstaking labor done on the hands and knees.
“Every spring we come out and remove what we can by hand, and then in the fall we return and try to pick up more parts of it,” Gallery said.
Despite the sweat that it sometimes requires, the work provides HIPP volunteers a great deal of satisfaction, especially when they can see the progress that has come from their labor. What used to be hedges of honeysuckle at Mackerel Cove have been reduced to mere shrubbery.
“We’ve seen in fields wild blueberries and other native plants take hold,” Gallery said. “So where there was once bittersweet (another form of invasive plant common in Harpswell), now we have native plants. It’s nice to see improvement.”
It is not only these native plants that benefit from HIPP projects, but also the native insects that feed from them as well.
“By opening up fields from bittersweet, we’re allowing more room for milkweed to come in, and that’s a good source (of food) for monarch butterflies,” Gallery said. “When they lay their eggs, the larvae eat the milkweed.”
Even with these success stories, Gallery knows that HIPP’s work is far from complete.
“It’s rewarding to see some progress, but it is a continual process. We just try to educate and get out here and do the work,” she said.
To learn more about the Harpswell Invasive Plant Partnership, or to volunteer, go to hippmaine.org.