In July 2014, working as part of a team surveying plants above the Alpine Garden on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, I came across many interesting native flora: arctic lichens, elfin tundra clubmoss, even a rare white-flowered rhododendron. The most remarkable find, though, was a distinctly unpleasant surprise: a patch of non-native dandelions blooming high on the summit cone.
Golden-flowered dandelions area cheerfully disguised menace. With the ability to displace native plants, they represent a new threat to the natural communities on New England’s highest peaks and in alpine zones all over the world. The group I was working with, led by the scientists Robert Capers and Nancy Slack (the latter, my co-author of AMC Books’ Field Guide to New England Alpine Summits), was studying the effects of future climate change on snowbed species. The dandelion discovery launched a new effort: to carefully locate and remove the invasive species from the mountain.
Most of us know the common dandelion as a ubiquitous lawn weed. This European perennial arrived in New England with 17th-century colonists and spread across the continent. It recently reached Alaska’s Denali National Park, where park officials classify it as a highest priority exotic pest. Indeed, the dandelion has followed human travel to most corners of the world, including the U.S. and Canadian Rockies, the Chilean Andes, the Japanese and Australian Alps, and even islands off Antarctica.
Scattered dandelions have been reported on Mount Washington before. Since the 1880s, when horses and mules carried tourists and supplies up and down the mountain, seeds have been deposited—and fertilized—in protected spots along the road and around summit buildings.
It was generally assumed the harsh environmental conditions in the Presidential Range would prevent their spread into wild alpine areas, but the 2014 sighting demonstrated dandelions can thrive in a remote, pristine habitat. Within a 20-by-36- foot area, Capers and Slack’s team counted more than 2,800 robust dandelion flowers. “Dandelions are fierce competitors for space, water, and nutrients,” Slack says. “When they get established, native plants are crowded out. Dandelions are able to leaf out earlier and stay green later than many of these plants, giving [the dandelions] an advantage in the short growing season.” Among the species negatively impacted are mountain heather, alpine bluets, and globally rare mountain avens.
After carefully documenting the Mount Washington site, Capers and Slack’s group successfully applied to the Waterman Fund for a grant. In July 2015, nine volunteers fanned out across the mountain and located five additional sites where dandelions had infiltrated snowbeds and alpine sedge meadows. Joined by teams from the United States Forest Service (USFS) and AMC, removal efforts began with crews working to hand-dig, bag, and carry out more than 200 pounds of plants. Survey and control projects continued in 2016, with AMC tackling dandelion removal around Lakes of the Clouds and Madison Spring huts. Going forward, the USFS will spearhead the battle to remove seedlings from known sites and monitor the mountains for additional invasions.
“We found the dandelions early enough that there’s a good chance of getting rid of them,” Capers says. “It will take persistence. Seeds in the soil can remain viable for many years, [but] we hope we can restore the mountain to a condition where there are no invasive plants. In New England, there aren’t many places where we can say that.”
Learn how you can participate in AMC’s alpine monotoring at outdoors.org/mountainwatch