Wild Chervil Coming to a Roadside Near You

By Rebecca Reid Gazette Contributing Writer

In central Vermont in June, the roadsides are lined with little white flowers and feathery green foliage reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace. To the unsuspecting, it is a pretty Vermont scene. But lurking in those innocent-looking flowers is a plant so fiercely adaptive, so good at what it does, that it’s rapidly spreading over open land wherever it can get a foothold—crowding out native species, and irrevocably changing local ecosystems. It’s doing in Vermont what many of the Pioneer Valley’s imported species (the so-called invasives: bittersweet, purple loosestrife and others) are doing here: taking over.

I thought I understood invasive plants, but wild chervil made the issue personal. It’s been creeping down the dirt road toward our

Vermont cabin for the past few years. We often pull it as we walk, leaving the plants in the road to be crushed, but every year it takes over more territory. Two years ago I found one blooming in our meadow and pulled it. The next year there were three—I pulled them, too. This year there were 20 blooming stalks. As I pulled them I saw hundreds more—smaller, in the grass. I pulled the blooming ones first and threw the pile into the woods. We turned over the others with shovels.

Four days later the turned ground was covered with hundreds of wild chervil sprouts. Every root had sprouted, found its way back up to the light, and grown four or five inches.

We took our shovels again, and scraped the first few inches of soil into heavy black plastic bags. But what to do with them? Given the persistence of this plant, we didn’t dare dispose of them anywhere where there was dirt and light. The safest place seemed to be the landfill and we left them by the roadside for the trash haulers.

That night I checked the spot in the woods where we had dumped the blooms. I came upon a hundred or so of their feathery shoots, sprouting in the deep shade from the withered plants as though they had risen from the dead. On the ground where the flowers had been, the umbels were now thick with pointed seeds. We gathered the whole mess up into another bag, and added it to the rest.

I decided to do some research. I learned that chervil propagates laterally from the root crown, and, if cut, creates a new crown. The tap root can go down six feet and its seeds are copious. They’re spread by birds, humans and water, and can grow anywhere. This is a most impressive plant. I am in awe of it.

I learned how important it is to do your homework—if I had carefully dug up that first plant two years ago and disposed of it properly, we wouldn’t have been digging and hauling roots and dirt for days this summer. Instead of a diverse meadow of milkweed, sensitive fern, vetch, yarrow and grasses, we may look out a few years hence on an unbroken sea of white umbels, devoid of monarch butterflies, deer, and all the other creatures that rely on this ecosystem.

When I walk our land in Amherst now, I will do it with new eyes. I’ll be on the lookout for wild chervil. When I see bittersweet smothering a roadside tree, I will be prompted to find out the most effective ways to discourage it. When I see euonymus (“burning bush”) for sale at a nursery, I won’t just shake my head; I’ll talk to the manager about not selling it. When I’m out in my kayak and see a mat of water chestnut, I’ll pull it and report it to the federal or state biologists working to control it. I’m too fond of the landscape, and of its slow year-by-year changes, to do nothing.

Rebecca Reid is the Hitchcock Center photographer and a long-time observer of nature.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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