ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The South Mountain Conservancy celebrated Arbor Day at the South Mountain Reservation on April 27, with volunteers doing clean up and planting in the Wildflower and Forest Preserve section of the park. Approximately 400 trees were planted in three hours and invasive species were cleared out of the area. The SMC’s goal is to maintain the walking and nature trails at the reservation, so the invasive plants don’t destroy the native trees and wildlife.
“That’s one of the problems at the reservation right now,” Rich Inserro, a member of the SMC Board of Trustees, said in an interview at the event on April 27. “It takes over the space and closes it off, so we want to clear it out and restore it.”
The group heads into the forest once a month to plant trees and maintain the plants they’ve already put into the ground. Tanya Prescott, another board member and the group’s volunteer coordinator, said the reservation became overgrown after it stopped being a deer preserve.
“This area was a deer preserve and then it just sat here for a couple of years until the county made it into a wildflower preserve,” Prescott said in an interview at the event. “So that’s going to regenerate the number of species and native trees will take over.”
When the SMC plants trees and flowers on the reservation, it keeps track of where they are planted and how they grow. Members of the organization experiment with different ways to control the invasive plants and eventually eliminate them completely.
“It’s about patience and trying to work with nature,” Prescott said. “If you force it, it’s not going to happen. We don’t use poison because the whole point is to have pollinators.”
The Japanese angelica tree is an invasive species that grows at the base of healthy trees, causing them to bend and snap. During the winter, Prescott has been trying to figure out what would control the trees on the reservation, because merely removing them is not effective.
“If you cut it and stop it’ll just grow back faster,” she said. “So I’ve tried to cut it and put vinegar on it to see if that will work.”
Keeping wildlife healthy is another goal of the SMC. If not controlled, invasive species eventually push birds and insects out of the area, leading to the decline of the reservation.
“There are birds that need certain seeds from certain trees,” Prescott said. “The butterflies that come need certain things and they’d rather have native plants.”
West Orange resident Glenn Newman, a retired land surveyor, has spent a lot of time outdoors. He was one of the volunteers who planted trees with the SMC on April 27.
“I’ve been living here for a long time and I enjoy the reservation,” Newman said in an interview at the event. “I was a land surveyor, so I’m trying to get back to it now. It’s a beautiful reservation so we want to continue to enjoy it.”
Shakher Sijapati, another West Orange resident who volunteered to plant trees at the event, said he lives down the street and spends a lot of time at the reservation.
“I love being outdoors so this was perfect,” he said in an interview at the event. “I grew up in Wisconsin so I was outside a lot. It’s nice having this area in the middle of what feels like the hustle and bustle of a city area.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Rich Inserro