Category Archives: Pioneer plant

Adventures with Austin’s Invasive Species Corps

Last weekend, I joined the Austin Invasive Species Corps to identify locations of Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense), an invasive species invading in the Long Canyon portion of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve (BCP).

I was happy to talk again with Mr. Chris Warren, a biologist with the BCP, and see the area that we helped to clear last year in my video, Titanic Struggle with Chinese Privet Ends with their Doom. (I’ll post another great video interview with him soon!)

Commander Ben and Biologist Chris Warren examine a small Chinese Privet.

It was nice to see a lot of native plants starting to grow back in the open spaces that the Chinese Privet plants used to occupy. We had pulled up a lot, but more were starting to creep back in and there were other areas too where the Ligustrum overran the native plants. (Sometimes the biologists in our group would call Chinese Privet by its scientific name, Ligustrum.)

Pulling up Chinese Privet with a weed wrench.

We used special weed wrenches to hand pull as much Chinese Privet as we could find. These heavy tools help to pull up the plant, roots and all, otherwise it could grow back from a stump.

It was a fun day filled with hunting invasives, hard work, and listening also to some wonderful presentations from many different people who are experts in the field of invasive species.

Know your invasive species: Chinese Privet

Small Chinese Privet plant (But they get much bigger!)

Chinese Privet is a woody bush with green leaves that break off easily and has lots of shoots growing out from the stalk.  It can sometimes be confused with the following native plants:

  • Elbow bush (Forestiera pubescens)
    How to tell them apart: Elbow Bush has branches that grow at 90 degree angles
  • Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)
    How to tell them apart: The Yaupon has a tooth edge leaf instead of smooth edge leaf like the Chinese privet.

Unfortunately, Chinese Privet invaded the lower area of Long Canyon where it crowded out the native plants to create a monoculture.  Seeds from “Godzilla” sized Chinese Privet that were planted in the landscapes of homes up on a ridge, washed downhill, grew, and quickly multiplied.  This process happens over and over again when it rains and when birds carry the seed berries too.

In Asia, Chinese Privet’s native home, it stays in check because it has to contend with disease, parasites, and wildlife “eaters”.  Here in the U.S., Chinese Privet is essentially free of predators, and this allows it to spread aggressively.  Even our deer don’t like to eat it!  They prefer our native Texas plants instead.

As a non-native and pioneer species, this invasive plant can grow and spread quickly.

So why is it a problem if Chinese Privet establishes a monoculture in our area?

Know your Endangered Species: Golden cheeked warbler

Golden-Cheeked Warbler
Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Well, it all has to do with water and the cute…and endangered…Golden-Cheeked Warbler.

The Golden-Cheeked Warbler, is a native bird and it uses the bark of the Ashe Juniper (Cedar) tree to make its nests.  These birds eat the larva of moths and butterflies that live on the Texas Live Oak trees.  Unfortunately, the Chinese Privet hogs the water and crowds out the the Cedars and the Oaks, and this eliminates the habitat and food for the Warbler.

This is especially troubling because the Golden-Cheeked Warbler is the only bird species with a breeding range confined to Texas from Palo Pinto County southwestward along the eastern and southern edge of the Edwards Plateau to Kinney County. The Balcones Canyonland Preserve is part of the Warblers’ habitat.

By clearing the Chinese Privet, we hope to create more habitat and food for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler.

Another opportunity to clear invasive species next month

Mark your calendars on Saturday, September 29, when the Austin Invasive Species Corps will get together again for a land management workday to fight against invasive plants in a new area of Long Canyon. This time, they’ll grapple with a team of two villains:

This is your chance to be an Invasive Hunter in action to battle against invasive species and help save the Golden-Cheeked Warbler!

Many thanks to Ms. Louise Liller, volunteer coordinator for the Austin Water Utility’s Wildland Conservation Division; Mr. Chris Warren; Austin biologists Mr. Darrell Hutchinson and Mr. Matt McCaw; and the valiant voluteers of the Austin Invasive Species Corp for hosting this event and making a difference for our endangered songbird and our native ecosystem.

Your friend,


Filed under Ashe juniper, Austin Invasive Species Corps, Austin Water Utility's Wildland Conservation Division, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, BCP, BCP wildland conservation, Chinese Privet, Edwards Plateau, Elbow bush, Endangered Species, Golden Cheeked Warbler, Ligustrum, Long Canyon, Mr. Chris Warren, Mr. Darrell Hutchinson, Mr. Matt McCaw, Ms. Louise Liller, Pioneer plant, Texas Live Oak, Wax Leaf Privet, Waxyleaf privet, Yaupon

Giant Redwoods and Lowly Ferns Nurture an Ancient Ecosystem

It’s been a few days since my last blog post, and I wanted to assure you that I haven’t been captured by invasives. I was in California enjoying the wonderful weather and the giant Redwoods.

Hiking through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Nature Trail

Loving nature, as I do, I really enjoyed hiking the trails through the Redwood trees in the Redwood National Park. I especially liked the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Nature Trail because it reminded me of my home state of Texas and our wonderful Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

It’s amazing how old the Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) can get with the larger trees in the park dating back 600-700 years ago. The giant trees started growing when the Aztecs and Mayans ruled Central America, well before the first Pilgrims arrived from the Mayflower.

It’s also shocking how large they can get with some growing over 360 feet. By comparison, my arch nemesis, the Giant Reed (Arundo donax), can grow up to 20 feet. That means that it would take at least 18 of these invasive plants on top of each other to reach the top of one of the Giant Redwoods. (I guess the Giant Reed is not so giant after all!) The Redwoods are the largest trees on the planet.

When I was at the lower edge of the trail where loggers had clear cut the Redwoods many years ago, there were no large Redwoods, but there were smaller ones and other fir and hemlock trees that had grown up around the stumps of the older trees. They were starting to work together to build another ancient forest of trees. Redwoods can grow from seedings or from burls at their base.

In other areas, it was sad to see some Redwoods so badly burnt, but they were still alive. They are hardy trees, with tannin-rich bark that resists insects, and that’s why they were so coveted by people.

The Redwoods like to grow in Northern California because of the climate, the fog, and the heavy winter rains. The fog is important to the trees because they get a lot of their moisture from the fog during the dry summer months.

Ferns pioneer the way

I found the ferns that grew around the Redwoods amazing because I love pioneer plants. They’re one the first plants to come in after a fire or other disasters. There haven’t been any large fires in the Redwoods lately, but the ferns are a key part of the forest ecosystem. Ferns reproduce by spore instead of seed, and they love the foggy wet weather along the Northern California coast.

There are many kinds of ferns and without a careful eye, they can look similar to each other. At the National Park Visitor Center, I picked up a book called Pacific Coast Fern Finder by Dr. Glenn Keator and Ms. Ruth Heady.

This handy pocket book uses dichotomous keys to help identify ferns. The technique of dichotomous keys asks at least two description questions at each step to help you identify what you’re studying.

For example, here’s a simple dichotomous key to help identify birds in central Texas:

Step 1.
If the bird has a red chest, go to step 2.
If the bird is gray and white, you sighted a Mockingbird.

Step 2.
If the bird has brown wings, you found a North American Robin.
If the bird is all red, you discovered a male Cardinal.

One of the ferns that I saw was the Common Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). Turning the leaves over, you can really see the sorus, which are clusters of sporangia that bear the spores.

Your friend,


Filed under California, Common Sword Fern, dichotomous key, Giant Reed, Lady Bird Johnson Grove Nature Trail, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Pioneer plant, Redwood National Park, Redwoods