TRR photo by Rodney Harder

Reclaiming the riverbanks

Vigilance—and American beach grass—beat back the knotweed

Most fishermen know where Cooks Falls is. Take New York 17 West past Roscoe, where it starts crisscrossing the Beaverkill River, then take the first exit, 93. The town’s inhabitants live mostly along the banks of the Beaverkill. There is no gas station or diner, and they no longer have a post office.

For several years now, Cooks Falls has been home to an uninvited visitor, one that has been increasingly dominating the pristine and natural banks of this world-famous fly-fishing river. Japanese knotweed, a member of the buckwheat family, resembles Chinese bamboo, growing to be 10 feet tall. The plant was brought to England as an ornamental plant prized for its heart shaped leaves and fast growth. In a short amount of time, it almost overran parts of the countryside. It is uncertain how it got to America, but it is thought it was in a similar way. People try many ways to kill knotweed—most of them requiring large quantities of strong chemicals—but few have been able to succeed over large areas for any length of time.

The species can now be seen in most corners of Sullivan and Delaware counties, threatening all other plants and the wild life with its overshadowing presence. When knotweed takes hold, it creates a monoculture where nothing else will grow. One large stand of knotweed can become a single organism all sharing the same root system. This makes it very difficult to kill because it can store a great deal of energy in its roots and will continue to send out shoots for years after it is cut down. It also has the ability to generate new growth from a small piece of root, leaf, or branch material. And rivers are excellent delivery systems, floating plant or root material downstream to get established in new spots. It is not uncommon to see stands of knotweed stretching along the Delaware River for nearly a mile, covering acres of land along the banks.

Several years ago, Jeff, a new resident to Cooks Falls, single-handedly took on the knotweed growing along the Beaverkill in front of his home. Jeff said, “I had just taken up fly fishing, and the desire to have a visual and temporal relationship with a body of water was a lifelong desire. My porch is elevated above the river, so without the bushes and the knotweed I would have a perfect view of the river and the rising fish.”

Jeff chose to go to battle without using chemicals. He started his crusade by chopping down the large plants with a tool he found in his garage and piling them into heaps to be dried out and rendered inert. But he understood that clearing alone would not be the end of it. After clearing the ground, he planted tufts of American beach grass, a plant native to the Northeast, six inches apart. This hardy grass grew quickly and eventually overshadowed the knotweed stumps, slowing down the invader’s persistent pace. He noted, “After the second year of cutting down the knotweed, pulling it out every week, and putting the beach grass in its place, wildflowers and other native plants and grasses started to return in a big way.” He proceeded each week to weed out by hand the persistently appearing baby shoots until the river grass begin to shadow the area. It took several months before it had an effect, but eventually the knotweed shoots slowed their growth and accepted defeat, for now. 

After six years of vigilance, the banks of the river have been naturally re-inhabited with the hundreds of indigenous species that once covered these banks. The variety includes daisies, daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. But the weekly weeding continues. “Whether [knotweed] is feeding on long-ago stored energy in its massive root system; or [is growing from] seed, or a part of a root, or a piece of leaf; or a random stalk rides on the fur of an animal or the soles of the shoes, the knotweed will always find fallow ground.”

I frequently see Jeff on his park bench located on the riverbank or see him and his friends entering the river to fish from his land. Observing him over these six years has been a lesson for me in persistence, patience and hard work. And I believe that his success will have lasting value, as it encourages others to join in as well. Clearly the greatest reward for him has been seeing the river, once hidden from view, from his picture window and knowing that in this one small spot in the world, he has acted to turn the situation around, one plant at a time. And it is working, at least for now.

A special thank-you to Jeff, who freely shared information included in this article. 



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