I am having trouble with one of the latest scientific findings. Some researchers are saying that earthworms are bad for forests. The new data claims the worms, which are mostly non-native species, gobble up too much of the leaf litter, leaving the forest floor bare and compacted. Wildflowers like trillium and bloodroot and even maple seedlings disappear, according to these scientists.
I know it is impertinent for a non-scientist to argue with the experts, but their conclusions in this case run counter to my experience in my tree groves and to my sense of logic. First of all, since the earthworms being discussed mostly came from Europe, why didn’t they destroy any forests over there?
For sure, my woodland is loaded with earthworms, especially night crawlers. I find their little piles of castings (I guess that’s what they are) on my way to the barn every morning. The woodland floor however remains six inches deep with leaf litter throughout most of the year, breaking down to about three inches by fall when a new layer of leaves drop. There certainly is no bare, compacted soil anywhere except on the lane to the barn where I drive truck and tractor.
Furthermore, the trillium and bloodroot that I have started in the woods proliferate except where deer nibble them. And as for maple seedlings, they grow up everywhere like weeds.
Furthermore again, the worms turn the leaves they do eat into rich humus and tunnel up and down in the forest soil, keeping it permeable and water-absorbing, a far, far cry from a barren, compacted soil surface.
I think scientists should turn their attention more to deer. Where plant life seems to be diminishing in woodland, deer are often to blame. When experimental fences are erected in forests to keep out deer, plant life proliferates, offering a stark contrast to the grazed portions outside the enclosures.
If earthworms really are a problem, I have a formidable solution. Or rather nature has. We have a scourge of moles in our gardens next to our woodland. They are there because they love earthworms. They also delight in going down a row of newly sprouted corn or peas, either eating them, or disrupting their root systems, or providing a tunnel for various voles to eat the sprouting seeds, depending on which authority you want to believe. If earthworms ever threaten to overpopulate our tree groves, the moles will surely take care of them.
I have a hunch the earthworm phobia is part of a larger, and sometimes justified, worry over “invasive” plants. So many plants causing problems for us now have come here from Europe or Asia. The presumed balance of power between the native plants, achieved over centuries, has been disrupted. I see where greenhouses are now advertising “non-invasive” plants, which I find a bit humorous. Almost any plant can become “invasive” in certain situations. In cutover woodland, native blackberries are just as invasive as non-native multi-flora rose. Maple, walnut and various other beloved trees can spread like Canada thistles given the right environment, like in my lawn and gardens next to the woods. In fact many if not most native plants can become invasive nuisances under some circumstances and some non-native plants are really quite desirable to have around. Bluegrass, certainly one of our most beneficial plants (except when it takes a toehold in my strawberry patch) is not native to America even if Kentucky does insist on calling itself the “Bluegrass State.”