Don’t let invasive plants create “learned helplessness” — Crownvetch can be beaten with attitude

Published on May 8, 2012 by   | Years ago many residents of the midwest planted non-native crownvetch. It was encouraged as a good form of erosion control. Ecology is a science of adaptive muddling. Later people realized this plant is an invasive plant in Wisconsin. Strangely it does little to reduce erosion. A few small clumps of this plant eventually covered a huge chunk of the shoreline near the boathouse at the Estate, quickly. This week’s activity was the next stage in controlling this invasion of crownvetch. For the past few years students every semester have worked in ecology class and with Stewardship in Action to take down the numbers of this crownvetch. After three years we finally have a hint of the upper hand. This year with the population dwindling we began restoring native plants to the shoreline once populated entirely with this invasive.

Part of invasive control is removing the pest species. An additional requirement is the restoration of native plants so the bare dirt doesn’t invite other invasives, or contribute to erosion. The native plants include bee balm, foxglove, new england asters, blazing star, and black eyed susans. All of the plants were started in class in the past month with the hard work of the students.

No problem is ever too big in environmental science. One of my professors at UW Madison used to discuss this concept called “learned helplessness.” Often as educators we fixate on the problems and neglect discussion of solutions. If this is how we teach about the planet many people will think the problems are too big and it is too late to do anything. This apathy is the learned helplessness my professor warned me about. This patch of crownvetch looked insurmountable when Jean and I first noticed it a few years ago. We began the process of evicting the plant before it spread along other sections of the shoreline on Black Oak Lake. It took a few years but from the first efforts to knock down the crownvetch we saw at as providing two opportunities. First, we could kill off an invasive if we kept at it. Second, we could show students how easy solutions can be for these kind of challenges.

We won’t be done with this shoreline for a few more years. Each year we will have to go after the crownvetch again as a huge number of seeds remain dormant in the soil. We will continue to add more native plants, creating a flow of native species in as we remove the exotic invasive. Over the next few years these perennials will spread across the ground and shade out the last of the invasive crownvetch in the soil.

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Music Featured is “Planting Trees” by David Tamulevich, used by permission of the artist.

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