Darien volunteers to tackle an ‘exploding number’ of invasive plants at Cherry Lawn Park

DARIEN — When town resident Laura Mosher was taking a walk with a friend through Cherry Lawn Park two years ago, she noticed something odd: a thicket of overgrown, sprawling greenery that closely resembled the invasive plants she had just been learning about in a gardening course she had enrolled in through a University of Connecticut program.

“Once you realize what you’re looking at, you can’t unsee it,” Mosher said. “It’s like an eye-opener. All of a sudden, what I was learning in my class, I’m seeing it live in our park.”

She brought friends from her course, a master gardener program, to give her a second opinion on the thicket. Then she brought members of the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Representative Town Meeting.

They all agreed: Invasive plants were growing out of control at Cherry Lawn Park.

The problem is not limited to Darien: Invasive plant species threaten thousands of species of trees and plants around the country. By stifling the growth of — or killing — native plant species that are beneficial to the environment, they also harm insects and wildlife.

In Darien, the problem is not limited to the 27.3-acre Cherry Lawn Park. Mosher said she sees invasive plants everywhere in town, including the school properties, other parks and even the homes of residents who may not know better.

But town volunteers have to start somewhere — and they are beginning with Cherry Lawn Park.

During a recent Board of Finance meeting, Lorene Bora, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, asked for $8,000 to begin removing invasive plant species crowding out native trees in a portion of the park.

An “exploding number” of invasive species are encroaching on the wooded area at the park, particularly the eastern section above the pond, Bora told board members.

“We’re all hyper-focused on the importance of maintaining each and every tree,” Bora said. “To have it brought to our attention that a number of our trees in our park are being threatened — that we will lose them if we don’t act — is really, really jarring and compelling.”

The Board of Finance approved that request, but the RTM has yet to give final approval. Once it does, Bora said work can begin in earnest around early July.

Bora said volunteers will assess each area of the park to determine what needs to be done. It will likely be a multiyear process, and the commission is seeking professional help and equipment to remove the invasive plants and prevent them from returning, she said.

There are many harmful invasive species currently taking over a wide stretch of park land, Mosher said.

She highlighted a few: Oriental bittersweet, a thick vine that “aggressively” twines itself around trees; porcelain berry, a low-growing invasive species that spreads out like a mat over the ground and prevents essential nutrients from getting to other plants; and lesser celandine, another mat-like plant with bright yellow blooms.

Many of these plants were purchased and planted by unsuspecting residents decades ago, Bora said.

“They look sort of decorative, but they’re not native to our area,” Bora said. “And people didn’t really realize that they were going to end up being harmful.”

While the town Parks and Recreation Department does not have the time or resources to handle the removal of the invasive plant species, Bora said the hope is that parks crew members could be trained in better identifying the plants as part of routine maintenance.

As for the imminent work, Bora said the commission and volunteers are committed to removing the invasives without harming the environment.

“You could put things like (the chemical weed killer) Roundup or whatever, you could just kill them all, but we don’t want to do that,” Bora said. “We’re committed to doing things sort of naturally.”