Brent Blair grew up on the streets of Chicago, but he spends most of his time now walking on forest floors. He’s studied the rainforests of Nicaragua and the redwoods of California. These days it’s Ohio’s forests, and what’s got his attention is the ubiquitous honeysuckle bush, the plant that graces Ohio’s lawns with delicate sweet flowers—and drives homeowners to distraction with its tendency to consume all other foliage.
Honeysuckle’s behavior in the wild isn’t much better. The Amur species of honeysuckle, to be exact, imported to the U.S. in 1890 from Asia as an exotic ornamental, was first reported out of control in the late 1950s in Hamilton County. It has been overwhelming fields and forests ever since.
Blair, an assistant professor of biology, wants to learn why the invasive species does so well in Ohio. He and two students began their research in the fall by gathering leaves. Over time, he expects a picture to emerge showing how the higher concentrations of nitrogen in honeysuckle leaves cause them to decompose faster than others.
“I’m looking at how does the honeysuckle impact the decomposition of the leaves on the forest floor,” Blair says. “It may change the ecosystem to the point that it’s more difficult for other plants to grow and easier for itself to grow, and thus it’s changing the environment.”
That accelerated decomposition, Blair theorizes, and the fact that the honeysuckle holds its leaves longer and grows later in the fall than other native species, creates an invasional meltdown—when an invasive species changes the habitat so that it can invade further. Baby tree seedlings never have a chance. A simpler solution, he agrees, could be to do what many homeowners do. Buy a chainsaw.