On a cold and rainy morning at the Sonoma Coast, 70-year-old Penny Dalton wore gloves and a look of determination as she dragged a sled laden with uprooted ice plant across a saltwater marsh near Doran Beach.
Stopping at an embankment, the retired Santa Rosa Junior College instructor bent down and grabbed handfuls of her cargo, which she heaved onto a growing discard pile. When she was done, she dragged the sled back to where she started and began piling on more ice plant.
Gardening has been linked to a healthy outlook on life. Dalton, however, admitted to feeling “a little crazy” driving all the way to Bodega Bay just to spend her time hunkered over in a backbreaking tug-of-war with a rapacious plant.
“This is not easy work,” she said.
Dalton and other volunteers with the California Native Plant Society have partnered with Sonoma County Regional Parks on removing as much ice plant as is humanly possible from Doran. The invasive plant carpets a significant swath of the landscape, choking out and killing native species and marring what otherwise is a gorgeous setting.
Some find ice plant pretty to look at. But its aesthetic attributes mask its evil tendencies.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Carpobrotus edulis” was introduced in California in the early 1900s for erosion control on railroad tracks, and later, along state highways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planted ice plant on coastal dunes. It is also sold in nurseries as an ornamental.
A coastal succulent native to South Africa, ice plant is voracious, forming thick mats in its march across landscapes. Insects and animals are robbed of sustenance and shelter as the low-growing plant takes over.
Ice plant’s heavy leaves and shallow roots can actually destabilize coastal soil and increase the chance of landslides, according to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, which likens the plant to “invading aliens.”
Where volunteers have removed ice plant at Doran, pockets of coyote bush, yarrow, pickleweed — even the rare and endangered Point Reyes bird’s beak — thrive once more.
“It just enhances the overall system to have a different plant palette out there, versus a monochrome of ice plant,” said Jen Stanfield, park project coordinator for Sonoma County parks.
Jan Lochner, a retired physical therapist from Sebastopol, organizes the work crews. She said she can count on a handful of people to make the trek depending on the weather.
Volunteers are concentrating their efforts along the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail, a 1.2-mile path that loops along the marsh just north of the formal boundaries to Doran Regional Park.
“I love it out here, and I love these guys,” volunteer Michelle Karle, a park project leader for Sonoma County parks, said while toiling alongside the crew. “I pull weeds for fun.”
Judith Rousseau, a retired Sonoma County librarian, compared untangling ice plant to disassembling a jigsaw puzzle.
“It feels good,” she said.
Volunteers acknowledge that despite their best efforts, their work will never be finished.
“We’ll never get rid of all of the ice plant,” said volunteer John Dean, a retired attorney and court commissioner who lives with his wife in Sebastopol. “But every little bit helps. You should have seen this before.”