Nature Notes: Natives vs. Invaders

In 1923 there were only a handful of invasive plants in Montauk, but things have changed dramatically

   Sunday saw a break in the Memorial Day weekend weather. Downtown Montauk was jam-packed, a perfect time to escape into the deserted Montauk outback, as Vicki Bustamante and I are retracing Norman Taylor’s epic 1923 monograph on Montauk’s plants, “The Vegetation of Montauk: A Study of Grassland and Forest.”
    In 1923 there were only a handful of invasive plants in Montauk, but things have changed dramatically in that regard, one of the reasons we are re-describing Montauk’s flora. Removed as it is so far from urban New York and its eastern suburbs, we are hoping that the number of native plants still far outnumber the Eurasian ones and that Montauk has a long way to go before it is sullied beyond repair.
    We took the trail into the Oyster Pond woods that stems from the Montauk Point State Parkway, a few hundred feet west of Camp Hero. Over the course of five afternoon hours we had the place to ourselves, except for four other walkers and two bike riders. No distractions other than a low-sailing turkey vulture and the songs of ovenbirds, wood thrushes, catbirds, Baltimore orioles, redstarts, red-eye vireos, and Carolina wrens. We made good progress as we took one path after another, covering at least half of the woodlands and wetlands adjacent to the pond waters.
    Many of the plants were in bloom. There were four different trees bearing white flowers, three hawthorns and the alternate-leaved dogwoods. Most of the trees had fully leafed out, with the exception of the tupelos, which are typically the last each spring to become fully foliated. There are several spectacularly tall and wide oaks and tupelos in eastern Montauk, one black oak that had been knocked apart by Sandy and thereafter sawed off to within four feet of the ground ringed out at 100 years or so old. In other words it had just gotten underway a few years after Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders’ Montauk stay.
    Because Oyster Pond had remained open so long after late October’s Sandy visitation, some saltmarsh spartina grasses were establishing in newly drifted sand adjacent to the phragmites stands. There were new patches of saltwater cordgrass, saltmarsh hay, and spike grass, all common components of Atlantic coast salt marshes. However, the wall of phragmites still stood firm and tall and spring’s new green shoots were already more than four feet high and looked as healthy as they have in past years. It would take more than Sandy to dislodge this foreign invader’s ownership of the periphery of Oyster Pond.
    Oddly, many of the trees common to Hither Woods and the rest of East Hampton could not be found among the Oyster Pond woods. Missing were sassafras, chestnut oaks, pignut and mockernut hickories, flowering dogwoods, gray birch, bigtooth aspens, eastern red cedars, pitch pines, and white pines. Interestingly, many of these missing trees are found south of the state parkway in the Point Woods, but are missing to the north.
    The history of the repopulation of Long Island’s flora after the retreat of the glaciers that created the Ronkonkoma and Harbor Hills moraines is one written from west to east, and south to north. Many of the earliest trees — spruce, hemlock, red cedar, paper birches, and aspens — retreated to the north. Hardwoods and softwoods poured in from the south and the Appalachian forests to the west. For example, pitch pines, Long Island’s most ubiquitous native pines, are still traveling east. They’ve gotten as far as the west side of Hither Woods just a little beyond the walking dunes.
    American hollies are common in Montauk and there are some giant ones in the Oyster Pond area. They apparently snuck in from the south, most likely along the glaciated lands that once reached a mile or more out into the sea and connected with Staten Island and New Jersey.
    The opportunist plants moved in quickly, especially after World War II, as eastern Long Island became more and more populated with humans. Road edges, paths, and trails are the first to be taken over. Thus as we walked from the highway to the pond, the exotics became less and less, but were still formidable in number by the time we reached the pond edge.
    There were chickweeds, mugwort, garlic mustard, plantains, multiflora rose, Asiatic bittersweet, Japanese and Tartarian honeysuckles, phragmites, and a host of other greedy intruders just waiting for the next big storm to hit and clear more land to provide new inroads for their divide-and-conquer strategies. Of the 150 or so plant species that we recorded on Sunday afternoon, at least 30, or 20 percent of them, were exotic invaders.
    This time around, we didn’t find any Japanese knotweed, but we know there is some there. Mile-a-minute weed has already reached Montauk and in another year or two will be covering much of the native foliage the way it is doing in the Morton Wildlife Refuge in Noyac. Giant hogweed having already settled, western East Hampton can’t be far behind. On the other hand, five of the native plants we found on that Sunday were completely new to my Long Island vocabulary. Fortunately, Vicki, who lives a stone’s throw from Oyster Pond and has been in and around it many times, knew their names. You learn something new each time you set foot in the same wilderness, and Sunday, I learned several somethings new. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?