Pod-Picking Day: Removing Black Swallowwort from an Iconic Maine Trail

Black swallow-wort sign

In my community of Ogunquit, Maine, we have a neighborhood volunteer group, the Marginal Way Committee, that helps care for Marginal Way, a public walkway located along a rugged stretch of oceanfront that is popular with tourists and locals alike. For the last four years, the Committee has organized volunteers to help control black swallowwort, an agressive vine that was crowding out native plants such as juniper and beach rose (Rosa rugosa). 

This year's Pod-Picking Day was on Saturday, August 15, and with weather predicted to be hot and humid, we were delighted to have 44 volunteers come out for our 4th annual event. Volunteers included dedicated repeat ‘Pod Pickers’ as well as many first timers, all of whom helped pull the seed pods of this tenacious vine before they burst open and spread more vines along our beautiful and scenic coastal trail. 

Volunteer sign-in
Volunteers sign in before receiving training on how to identify and pull black swallowwort.

We had students earning community service hours, the Project Manager of UNH’s Stewardship Network: New England with her whole family, Marilyn Wallingford from Hampton, NH who wants to learn how to start a black swallowwort volunteer effort in her community, and walkers that we had talked with as we were flagging swallowwort locations the day before. We had people from Minnesota, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine -- South Berwick, Wells, York, Cape Neddick, Kennebunkport and of course Ogunquit.

black swallow on tarp with volunteer
Volunteers pulled black swallowwort along the trail.

 People have contacted us about how we've organized this event, so here are some details:

Ask for help:  We've asked local businesses to contribute supplies, and they've agreed: heavy duty trash bags are donated by Eldredge Lumber in York, sodas by a local resort (the Anchoarge), and parking at this busy location arranged for volunteers thanks to Ogunquit's town manager Tom Fortier.

volunteers carrying invasives
Volunteers hauling bags of black swallowwort pulled along the trail.

The public will be curious, so tell them your story: While volunteers were busy pulling vines and picking pods, volunteer Deborah Twombly from Exeter, NH helped educate walkers-by with stories about butterflies and how our work eliminating swallowwort (and our planting of native milkweeds in its place) will help monarches. It's a positive message, and people are interested.

volunteer at info booth
Volunteer Deborah Twombly explains how removing black swallowwort is helping improve habitat for monarch butterflies.

Be organized and train volunteers: We sent volunteers to work under the direction of our now veryexperienced ‘captains’ – Karen Garvin, Peg Maranian, Peg Hanscom and Lauren Rooney. They all have an eagle eye for spotting swallowwort lurking over, under and through other vegetation along the path. The captains divided their groups into smaller teams to clear out the seed pods in our target locations that had been tagged.  They pointed out how to look for the distinctive dark green leaf and the pods, and demonstrated how to pull the vines out.

Lauren's husband Tim Rooney had this to say about volunteering at Pod Picking Day this year, "Left unattended, this vine would kill beach roses and junipers. Although it's not very obvious, once I learned what black swallowwort looks like, now we notice it all over the trail and we can't help pulling it whenever we see it." 

So, how did we do this year?  Last year, we had cool weather and a few more volunteers, and we picked 1,000 lbs of seed pods and vines. But now, we are noticing with our restoration work and targetted pulling, we seem to have less swallowwort growing than in the past, so that is a good thing! This year, we collected over 800 pounds of black swallowwort!

volunteers with bags of invasives
Bags of black swallowwort seed pods weighed 800 lbs this year, a number that we want to see decrease over time.

We know we can never completely eradicate swallowwort, or probably any of the many other invasive non-native plants now growing on the Marginal Way.  But what volunteers are doing is having a definite impact on the spread of this incredibly aggressive vine. Little by little, and plant by plant, we are making a difference.  We will make space for our beautiful natives like the pasture junipers, chokeberries, viburnums, red cedars and milkweed - to not only survive but to thrive.

"This is one of the most beautiful places in the world," says volunteer Tim Rooney. "To have public land right on the beach is so special in the East Coast, and it would be such a shame to see it overrun by these plants. My wife Lauren brings me every year - and I'm always glad I came."

organizer and team captain
Organizer Joan Griswold with volunteer team captain Lauren Rooney.

I can only say on behalf of the Marginal Way Committee…thank you, thank you thank you to our volunteers! Please join us again next year!