Drought-busting storms were also a boon to invasive plant species in the Ballona Wetlands

By Gary Walker

Friends of Ballona Wetlands field coordinator Neysa Frechette grabs a handful of invasive black mustard plant during a March 17 restoration event
Photo by Robert Johnson/Magnus Studio

The abundant winter rainfall that rescued Los Angeles from its historic five-year drought also helped resuscitate the bane of every gardener’s existence: weeds.

And for the Ballona Wetlands, that spells trouble.

The 640-acre state ecological reserve, no stranger to invasive species, is experiencing a proliferation of non-native plants that threatens to set back the progress of meticulous restoration efforts over the past three decades.

“This is the downside of all the rain that we saw,” explains Patrick Tyrell, habitat restoration manager for the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands.

Over the past month, Friends of Ballona Wetlands has coordinated numerous special restoration events in which volunteers pull out overgrown patches of unwanted plants taking over portions of the wetlands.

Tyrell, who has been with the group for seven years, says he’s never seen Ballona so inundated with invasive, non-native plant species. He warns that it’s crucial to remove them sooner rather than later.

“The next few months will be a really important time,” he says, “because we want to get them before they begin to germinate.”

One of the plants that Friends of Ballona Wetlands staff and volunteers have spent several years trying to eradicate is iceplant, which are not native to the continent but are commonly used here as ground cover in residential and commercial landscaping.

At one point iceplant and mustard plant had taken over more than half of the wetlands, according to a 2014 report by the nonprofit Bay Foundation, which conducts scientific monitoring of the wetlands as part of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife’s ongoing but perennially delayed Ballona restoration effort.

More recently, however, it’s terracina — a dense weed whose flowers at times resemble those of a carnation — that has been spreading out of control.

The California sun bushflower is among
the native wetland plants that biologists are working to preserve

Tyrell said terracina has been a problem in all areas of the wetlands and has been especially difficult to eradicate.

“They crowd out native plants and compete for sunlight, water and soil. It haunts my nightmares,” he says with a wry smile.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Friends of Ballona Wetlands Restoration Biologist Dr. Edith Reade adds that there have been some ecological benefits of all that precipitation.

Annual native flowers such as the rare Orcutt’s yellow pincushion and the evening primrose, which both need a great deal of moisture in order to bloom, could make earlier and strong appearances this year due to the downpour.

“There might be some natives hidden among the weeds. We might be treated to quite a spring,” Reade says. “The upside to the rain is we could see a lot of native species return to the wetlands.”

But Reade is also concerned about another persistent wetlands pest: mosquitoes.

“There are a lot of water pools in the wetlands because of the rains, and when you get weeds and standing water there will be mosquitoes,” she warns.

Holly O’Meara was one of a half-dozen volunteers who came to the wetlands last Friday to help remove terracina and other invasive plant species. After a crash course by Tyrell to help them identify plants subject to removal, the group set off with trash bags, latex gloves and wheelbarrows.

“The weeds that I’m dealing with in my garden are very different,” noted O’Meara, a West Los Angeles resident. “I thought [volunteering] would be a great way to be outdoors, and I enjoy weeding in general. I find it hypnotic in a very pleasurable way.”

Friends of Ballona Wetlands needs volunteers for a special restoration event from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 28. Meet in the parking lot behind Gordon’s Market / Alkali Water, 303 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey. Call (310) 306-5994 or visit ballona-friends.org for more information.