'They threaten the biodiversity': Habitat Rx program to remove invasive plants

Shelby DeSoto
sdesoto@waltonsun.com

The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance has partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Longleaf Alliance once again to provide property owners with the Habitat Rx invasive plant removal program in South Walton.

“Invasive plants don’t have any known predators and they threaten the biodiversity and out-compete native plants in the area,” said CBA Restoration Coordinator Rachel Gwin. “With funding from the NFWF, the CBA is able to offer this innovative program free of cost.”

Gwin said the previous year they had a smaller group to see how well the removal would go. Longleaf Alliance and CBA removed more than 60 trees located on 20 homeowner properties. The homeowners were also given a replacement tree that is native to area. Gwin said they plan on offering replacement trees this time around as well.

Some invasive plants include the Mimosa tree, Mexican Petunia, torpedo grass, Chinese Tallow tree and cogon grass. These particular plants “out-compete” with the native plants along the shorelines and threaten the local ecosystems and habitats like the Choctawhatchee beach mouse, which makes its home in the sea oats, said Gwin.

“By doing this it encourages people to use Florida friendly plants in their landscape. People don’t always realize how detrimental plants can be,” she said.

Mike Thompson, ecosystem support team supervisor for Longleaf Alliance, said many homeowners plant invasive species mainly for aesthetic purposes.

Everything from the chemistry of the soil to toxins in the Chinese Tallow tree’s berries can harm the native environment, making it difficult for other species to grow and are also harmful to humans and animals.

“Habitat Rx is special to us; we’re able to hit invasive plants on private landscapes and that’s the hardest area to get into,” said Thompson. “Our biggest concern is losing native plant communities; more can become endangered or extinct.”

“NFWF is proud to support the CBA and their project partners in engaging the dedicated volunteers who monitor and restore the extremely unique coastal dune lake ecosystems of Walton County,” said Jay Jensen, director of the Southern regional office for NFWF.

“This project demonstrates the goal of the Five Star & Urban Waters Program, supported by Southern Company, to reconnect people with their local resources and to foster community education and involvement in an environment that has been designated as globally rare and critically imperiled,” Jensen said.

Property owners living in areas South of Highway 20 will have the opportunity to have these plants removed and treated by enrolling in the program. Enrollment ends Sept. 21. Homeowners will also receive a replacement tree such as a red maple or sassafras tree.

CBA and Longleaf Alliance will make site visits through the end of September and will begin to remove the invasive trees in October.

“I recommend property owners find native species to Florida that reflect Florida and are true to this region. When I see native flowers growing, it builds excitement,” said Thompson.

Forms can be found by visiting http://www.basinalliance.org and filling out the agreement form. Gwin said forms can be mailed, emailed or dropped at 109 Greenway Trail in Santa Rosa Beach.