Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society wages war against honeysuckle in Caesar Creek

Posted at 9:00 AM, Oct 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-27 09:00:41-04

CINCINNATI -- Christine Hadley loves wildflowers. After all, she's the president of the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society.

That's why she hates honeysuckle.

Not the sweet-smelling vine whose lovely white flowers distill a sweet-tasting nectar, although it's a problem, too. We're talking about a bushy variety with red berries, green leaves and stems that can grow thick enough that it takes a chainsaw to cut them.

The preservation society has asked its members to join them for a honeysuckle eradication day set for Oct. 29 at Caesar Creek Gorge State Nature Preserve in Warren County.

They'll cut down honeysuckle bushes and spray the stumps with herbicide along Gorge Access Road, behind the large earthen dam that created Caesar Creek Lake.

Honeysuckle's bad for wildflowers for a couple of reasons, Hadley said.

First, it has a longer growing season than most wildflowers. Its leaves come out first in the spring and fall off last in the fall. It grows so densely that it quite literally keeps other plants in the dark.

Second, it produces a chemical that hinders other species of plants from growing near it, a process called allelopathy.

These qualities also help it take over the forest floor, making it impossible for young trees to grow. Over time, that could spell the end of a forest or at least greatly cut back its trees.

As one writer put it, "Honeysuckle is a blob-like monster that's taking over American forests." It's not a native plant, having been brought here from Asia as an ornamental in the late 1800s.

Contrary to popular belief, the berries are not good for birds, although they eat them, said Debi Wolterman, founder of the cleanup event. They have no nutritional value.

"I hear that all the time," she said. "I hear people say, ‘But the birds love it,' and I say, ‘Yeah, they love it like you love junk food.'"

Debi Wolterman holds up the saw she will use to cut down a strand of honeysuckle on a recent afternoon in Caesar Creek Gorge State Nature Preserve in Warren County. Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor

The honeysuckle cleanup at Caesar Creek has been an annual event for 10 years, and it's made a big difference in the look of the park, Wolterman said.

For example, visitors can now see a beautiful stand of birch trees that they couldn't before.

"The best thing is to come back in the spring to an area where you've cleared out, and say, ‘Holy crap!'" the Lebanon resident said.

Other plants spring up quickly because of the great diversity of species in the forest, said Jim Mason, a commercial landscaper who volunteers at the cleanup every year.

"That's part of what makes the whole lake area such a great place," he said.

More than two miles of Caesar Creek flow through the gorge, the walls of which rise up to 180 feet. The forest includes beech, hickory, maple and oak trees. Rare plants native to the gorge include sweet Indian plantain, large summer bluets, glade mallow and California willow.

Unless some critters take to eating honeysuckle, or a blight develops that kills it, the fight against honeysuckle will be a forever one, said Anita Buck, secretary of Northside Greenspace Inc.

"It's pretty devastating what (honeysuckle) does to a nice woodland," she said.

Originally founded to fight development on forest land in Northside, the nonprofit has since switched to removing invasive plants in the neighborhood's parks. Over the past 20 years, the members have focused on two local nature preserves: Buttercup Valley and Parkers Woods.

They've largely removed the honeysuckle from Buttercup Valley, Buck said, which contains 22 acres of old-growth forest, with some of the largest trees in Hamilton County.

"Most of us in urban areas don't get to see what forests looked like in our great-great-grandparents' day, but in the heart of Buttercup Valley, you get an idea," she said.

Removing the honeysuckle has allowed an array of wildflowers, sedges and grasses to spring up.

"It's amazing what roots, bulbs, seeds … lie dormant for years, even decades, waiting for increased light," Buck said.

Another local group that does honeysuckle removal is Western Wildlife Corridor. It's a nonprofit dedicated to preserving green space in the Ohio River corridor on the west side of Hamilton County.

In 2004, the Western Wildlife Corridor began removing honeysuckle on Bender Mountain Nature Preserve, more than 50 acres of wooded hillside between Bender Road and Hillside Avenue in Delhi Township. With nearly all the honeysuckle removed, wildflowers and native trees have proliferated, corridor president Tim Sisson said.

Now, corridor volunteers are focused on removing honeysuckle and other invasive species from the other seven preserves the corridor either owns or manages. Every few months, they return to Bender Mountain to remove new honeysuckle sprouts spread by birds eating the berries.

The corridor is in the process of turning its preserves into nice areas without invasive species, Sisson said.

The Caesar Creek cleanup is scheduled for 9 to noon Oct. 29. Those interested in helping out are encouraged to contact Hadley at 513-850-9585 or