Chuck, my host in New Orleans, has been volunteering at a local organization called Common Ground for the last few years. Following Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground dedicated itself to rebuilding homes in New Orleans. They still do some construction work, but lately they've shifted their efforts more toward restoring the local wetlands and building community gardens. They constantly seem to be coming up with new ideas to help New Orleans and the region.
On the day I visited Common Ground, their mission was to kill an invasive species of tree called Chinese tallow. The seeds of many native trees die when submerged in water, but tallow seeds float due to their waxy coatings. Tallows also mature quickly, producing upwards of 100,000 seeds per tree after only three years. Worse, cutting down a tallow tree doesn't kill it – it will grow back. Katrina destroyed a lot of native wetland vegetation, but it was the perfect storm for the tallow, enabling the trees to overrun the region in less than a decade. The Chinese tallow is the Terminator of trees.
The most efficient way to kill a Chinese tallow is to cut out a ring of bark and spray the trunk with a herbicide such as garlon. If you can manage to spray the tree within thirty seconds of stripping its bark, there's a seventy percent chance it will die. There's no way you'll clear the whole forest of tallow in a single try, but with persistent effort over many years, it's possible to cut back on the numbers.
We took a hack at tallow-killing in a wetland just outside of the city. Over 300 volunteers showed up for the event, mainly corporate employees from around the country who were in town for conferences. Chuck led our team, arming us with garlon, machetes and loppers. We gave ourselves two nicknames – Team Chuck and The Judy Garlons – and went to work.
After twenty minutes of hacking and spraying the trees, we seemed to be making good progress. Then the leader of the volunteer effort came up to us, frantically waved her arms and yelled, “Everybody stop!” I had a flashback of an experience I had a year ago in a state park in Wisconsin, when I filled a garbage bag with what I thought was garlic mustard, an invasive species, but was actually violet, the state flower. This time, I thought we had accidentally wiped out the only remaining native trees, clearing room for even more Chinese tallow. It turned out we actually were killing the right trees; we were just supposed to be working in a different area. I breathed a big sigh of relief and walked with the rest of our group to the correct part of the forest.
Team Chuck continued its efforts, lopping, chopping and spraying garlon, or “spritzer,” as it quickly became known. Before long, we had carved an entire blue-banded forest. We celebrated our tree-killing efforts with a military Rockettes dance. Time will tell if the Judy Garlons were successful in killing the Terminator trees, restoring a small section of Louisiana wetland.