Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Kristin Willette, Invasive Plant Patrol Volunteer with a Mission

By Sage Passi

Kristin Willette walks a trail in Battle Creek Park on the hunt for targeted invasive plants.

I have my internal GPS system trained to find people with a passion and a mission. I know there are people out there in the watershed doing dedicated, important work. My mission: Find them wherever they are and cover their story.

I’ve been curious about what entices invasive plant volunteers to become involved. I asked Carole Gernes, Coordinator for the Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management Area, if I could trail one of her volunteers. I was pleased when an opportunity to meet Kristin Willette, arose in July. Kristin is an enthusiastic volunteer who looks for early detection target species in several areas.

Earlier this spring Carole organized two Invasive Plant Patrol trainings, one in Maplewood and the other in Tamarack Nature Preserve, to train volunteers to learn how to be extra eyes with the goal of stopping new invasive species from gaining a foothold in the county. New invasive plants just moving into the area are referred to as early detection species.
Volunteers hike on and off trails, mark locations of invaders and report them for removal.

Carole Gernes, coordinator for the Ramsey County Cooperative
Weed Management Area, with oriental bittersweet, an invasive threat.

The Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management Area (RCCWMA) is a cooperative relationship between government agencies, businesses, non-profit organizations and other interested groups working towards managing early detection species that could impact natural lands, parks and open spaces in Ramsey County. RCCWMA began its volunteer program in 2010 with Early Detectors working in Maplewood and North St. Paul. Additional volunteers in Roseville, Shoreview, White Bear Lake and St. Paul joined the efforts in the past couple years. The plants that are on their radar are listed below. They are grouped in the following categories: 

Early Detection Target Species in Ramsey County

Noxious weeds which must be eradicated by law
  • Grecian foxglove
  • Cut-leaf teasel
  • Oriental bittersweet
Noxious plants which must be managed by law
Minnesota Restricted Noxious Weeds
Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species; illegal to possess, propagate or transport
  • Flowering rush

Other species that threaten ecosystems

  • Japanese hedge parsley
  • Miscanthus ssp.

Carole’s training sessions enable volunteers to practice identification with herbarium species. They learn how to identify and distinguish these targeted species from beneficial look-alikes. 

Kristin, acknowledged, “Carole has been most encouraging and responsive. I feel I am actually helping directly in an effort I care about very much! I started studying exotic invasive plants and animals back in grad school in the 1980s and have always had an affinity for weeds.” 
Kristin and I decided to rendezvous at her house because I wasn’t sure I could pinpoint where to meet at Battle Creek Park. Before we left to go to the park, she sat down with me in her living room to share her story about how she chose to get involved in being an “Early Detector”.

A couple years ago Kristin moved to a townhome in St. Paul from her house near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. It was hard moving to a place without a yard so she said she was happy to discover a place like Battle Creek Park to hike and explore not far from her new home.
Kristin Willette has a strong fascination with both "weeds" and native plants.

“The mountain-bike trails at Battle Creek Park are my closest and favorite places to walk. There’s a 'wildness' there, in the midst of the city, but the park also has every kind of human impact you can find. I have found relatively rare plants there, as well as plenty of weeds and invasives. I retired recently and getting involved in this program has been like returning to an earlier time in my life, growing up on a farm in southeastern Minnesota. During my childhood I got very familiar with weeds and how they behave.” Her interest and study of exotic plants and animals took off even more intensively during her years as a graduate student in the 1980s.

I followed Kristin in my car and we drove to one of the entry points she uses to get into the park. To my surprise, I realized that this was at the same location I have arranged for buses to drop off students when I’ve led tours in the park.

One of the plants that soon grabbed her attention when we met at the entrance and walked into the park was Japanese hedge parsley. It wasn’t obvious to me at first with my untrained eye, but I soon began to notice how common it was in various places along the trail.

Kristin Willette with Japanese hedge parsley at one of Battle Creek Park's trail heads.

Japanese hedge parsley is a biennial that invades woodlands and woodland edges
and roadsides. It establishes as a rosette with parsley-like leaves in the first year.
Photo credit:

Japanese hedge parsley flowers in midsummer, producing small white,
flat-topped umbels. Under each umbel are a number of narrow bracts.

Photo credit: Simba Blood

The seeds of Japanese hedge parsley, produced later in the
summer, are bristly and will attach to your clothes

Photo credit:

I asked her what was one of the other targeted Early Detection plants she has found in the park.

“Narrowleaf bittercress,” she responded.

I had to admit I didn’t know how to recognize the plant.

Narrowleaf bittercress
Photo credit:

Narrowleaf bittercress is a new invader to Minnesota. Kristin said she has found it in several places in Battle Creek Park – in one area she calls “the absolutely horrible area” - a spot with more invasives than she can report or pull, but also in a beautiful area where early meadow rue, Canada mayflower and false rue anemone grow in a forest of ferns. This bittercress grows vigorously in deep shade and woods, covering the ground in dense patches. It can also be found on banks, thicket margins and on moist limestone rocks and cliffs. It can be differentiated from other mustards and bittercress by its membrane-like, narrow, pointed ears or auricles which extend from the leaf base to grasp the stem. These ears remain on the stalk when leaves are removed. Kristin surmised that it was probably transferred to that wooded area via the off-road bicycle paths that connect to those out of the way places in the park.


Arrowhead and reed canary grass are two of
the common species along Battle Creek's edge.

Most of my walking tours with kids have always focused on the creek. I’ve never really stopped to look at the larger diversity of plants set back from the trail tucked under the canopy of trees. The densely growing canary grass and two natives, the arrowhead and an occasional swamp milkweed growing along its banks are the typical plants that have absorbed my interest, but now with her direction I found myself beginning to notice the tucked away areas where Kristin keeps her eye out for “what does not belong.” I was excited to see dense patches of wild ginger, sensitive fern and other ferns interspersed with meadow rue and other native woodland species.

One of the out-of-the-way trails that Kristin includes in her monitoring walks.

As we walked further into the park, it became more obvious that the Japanese hedge parsley has asserted its way into the park. But as Kristen reminded me, trying to keep it from getting a foothold in the out of the way places where a bike or a footstep might carry its seeds to less trodden, diverse woodlands in the park is still an important mission. I asked her to point out one of those trails. We headed a short distance up one of the dirt trails and her eyes were soon fixed on a couple of stray Japanese hedge parsley plants that had found their way into the woodland mix. In a couple more seconds those Japanese hedge parsley were no longer there.

Kristin removes some Japanese hedge parsley growing off the beaten track.

I appreciate Carole’s summary of Kristin’s level of dedication.

“She’s like the One Woman Battle Creek Improvement Association!” 

I’ll ditto that.

Back on the creek trail I noticed that Kristin had stopped for a moment and was taking a photo of a plant on her phone that drew her suspicion. She told me she’s delighted to have a feature on her phone that allows her to map the location points where she had detected something she wants to report.

Kristin snaps a shot of a tall plant in question.

She wasn’t sure of the plant’s identity but she said she would do some more research and let me know what it was. A couple of days later I got this e-mail from her,

“That big plant I was worrying about at Battle Creek, I thought was Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzanium). But what we saw is more likely Cow Parsnip or some other member of the Umbelliferae family. I sent a picture to Carole Gernes, but really I should go back and (now that I know what to look for) examine the stem for purple blotches and stiff white hairs at the joints. Details, details!”

When I asked Carole about this plant that Kristin was concerned about, she informed me that Giant Hogweed hasn’t been seen yet in Minnesota.

“But it is knocking on the door.” It has been reported in Wisconsin and Michigan. It causes burns like wild parsnip but if you get the sap in your eyes, it can permanently blind you. It can grow to fifteen feet high with leaves five feet wide and a huge stem four to five inches in diameter. To eradicate that plant you need to use a full hazmat (protective body suit) with a face shield.” With all this information I couldn’t help conjuring up images of a knight in armor going after the fierce Giant Hogweed.

After I left Kristin that morning, she soon took off on the trail of another suspect. This is what she later had to report,

“After seeing you I looked at a vacant lot along Old Hudson Road. If you click on the Google maps link below you will get a map; the satellite view "Earth" reveals more. Tansy was growing there; it had been mowed off short, but was vigorously flowering at about 6" tall! Carole says they need to treat tansy when it is not flowering.”

I chuckled when she shared her e-mail to Carole with me.

Photo credit: Carole Gernes

“It may not show in the photo, but a patch of tansy is out there. Wish I was taller!”

You may not be that tall, Kristin, but you have X-ray vision!

Look out, tansy! Someone will be coming for you!

Thank you to Kristin and all of the other dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly to help our natural world.

Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management Area is a program of Ramsey Conservation District.

Up-to-date information about the Invasive Plant Patrol or early detection species in Ramsey County can be found on Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management Area’s Facebook page:


  1. The Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management Area is a program of Ramsey Conservation District.