With their gloved hands gripping shovels, Boy Scout Troop 125 ventured into the wooded area out back of First Christian Church – eyes scanning for the fluorescent red berries of coral ardisia.
Coral ardisia was one of six invasive plant species targeted for removal in the 7th annual Great Invader Raider Rally hosted by the Gainesville Greenway Challenge. From Feb. 19-22, community members removed non-native invasive plant species.
Instead of working in locations scattered throughout the city as done in previous years, organizers encouraged people to remove invasive plants in their own yards and neighborhoods, said Geoffrey Parks, Nature Operations Supervisor for the Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.
“We wanted to still give people an opportunity to participate and to feel like they’re part of something and to introduce them to the health of the natural areas while staying as socially distanced as possible,” Parks said.
Sally Wazny, Nature Center Education Supervisor for the department, said 364 people officially registered for the event.
Many of the invasive plant species in Gainesville arrived from other areas, unlike the native species that have evolved specifically in the local environment. Natural environmental controls from their native origins, such as pests, herbivores and diseases that would normally keep them in check can no longer do so.
Parks said many of the species that have become invasive were brought intentionally as horticultural species.
Although there is a federal and state list of weeds that prohibit the sale and movement of some of these plants, there are many harmful plants that are not on that list.
“It’s a major contributor to potential decline and maybe even extinction of a lot of our native species,” Parks said. “It’s important for us to try to keep the balance and make sure that the species that thrive here and have always lived here still have a place to be.”
After three hours of work, Rich Bennett, a 50-year-old scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 125, estimated he and his troop removed thousands of plants, mostly vibrant berries.
“There’s so many people all at once removing the invasive species, that it really makes a dent in it,” he said.
Bennett said the event was a good conservation service project for his 15-person troop of 11 to 18-year-old scouts. It was also a nice opportunity for the scouts to socialize because they no longer meet in person due to COVID-19.
“A lot of them don’t go to school in person,” Bennett said. “And so just a little bit of contact even kind of far away from each other is fun.”
Suzette Moore, a 53-year-old Gainesville resident, removed coral ardisia and tuberous sword ferns, a green plant that resembles a serrated blade, from her yard Sunday along with her husband and two sons.
Admiring the beauty of the ornamental coral ardisia plant, Moore wanted to make it an addition to her yard — until she learned about it.
"Then I said, ‘Oh no! I’ve got to get rid of them,’” Moore said.
Despite scratches from prickly vines, Moore’s 10-year-old son stayed committed to the almost four-hour project, she said.
The Moore family removed three trash bags full of the invasive plants, she said. Even with the new pandemic distancing rules in place for the event, she said she felt good about it — and herself.
“It was a good family time and for a good cause,” Moore said.
For people looking to remove invasive plants in their own yards, Parks said it’s important to dispose of them properly by double bagging them in plastic trash bags and putting them out with their regular trash to prevent spreading.
The Gainesville Greenway Challenge organizes weekly and monthly invasive plant removal work days for volunteers in the local parks throughout the year. Although the big volunteer events are on hold due to COVID-19, he said they hope to bring them back as soon as it is safe to do so.
“We’re just really encouraged that even under these challenging circumstances and a different format, people were still excited to participate,” Parks said. “They still took part and did a lot of good for the community and its natural areas.”
Alexandra Harris is a contributing writer for The Alligator. Follow her on Twitter @harris_alex_m.
Alexandra is a senior journalism major reporting on Science/Environment for The Alligator. Her work has appeared in The Gainesville Sun, and she filed public records requests for the Why Don't We Know investigative podcast. She has a passion for the environment.