Looking Back at a Fantastic Year of Pulling Vinca Major in Aravaipa Canyon

2021 was a great year for pulling Vinca major, an invasive plant, from the creek beds of Aravaipa Canyon Preserve in Arizona. In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), who we’ve worked with on this project since 2015, we held ten trips across six months this year.

Each one was critical in helping us build upon the work we’ve done in Aravaipa — here’s why:

Bigleaf periwinkle, Vinca major’s common name, is a plant that was primarily used by early settlers to Aravaipa as groundcover for yards, gardens, and graveyards. But as a monoculture, it grows in a thick mat, choking out native plants and providing little to no replacement pollen for our native pollinators.

Thus, it is our job to uproot these mats — roots, leaves, stems, pretty purple flowers, and all — and replace them with native plants that will better support pollinators and wildlife, like milkweeds, giant sacaton, and deer grass.

Vinca major is a pretty plant, but a seriously invasive species that prevents native plant growth in the Sky Island region. Image by inkflo from Pixabay.

But eradicating Vinca major is hard work. During flood and rain events, if any portion of the vine or root is broken off, it can easily spread downstream or to other parts of the canyon. Even when pulling up the plant by hand — which is the primary purpose of our volunteer trips — missing just a small part of the long, persistent roots can cause regrowth.

[Read more about the Aravaipa Habitat Project.]

And unfortunately, while TNC is able to treat most vinca on in the preserve with herbicide, spraying on the vinca that grows down to the creek bed is dangerous. Aravaipa Creek is one of the most intact native fisheries in Arizona and is a good breeding ground for loach minnow and spikedace. Extra care is thus taken to ensure that the vinca that grows within 4-6 feet from the banks are removed by hand, even if it takes a lot of manpower!

It’s this necessary and important hard work that makes us so thankful for our incredible volunteers.

In 2021, five Sky Island Alliance staff rotated in leading 68 volunteers (including 14 students across two trips from Round River Conservation Studies) to Aravaipa Canyon Preserve. Many volunteers were returnees, meaning they joined us across multiple trips to get their hands dirty, dig with shovels and pickaxes, and make a host of friends along the way.

Caption: Success! Volunteers celebrate a mountain of vinca pulled after a long Memorial Day Weekend volunteer trip. May 2021.

From cold February mornings standing knee-deep in the creek to braving an onslaught of hot summer afternoons in July and August, these fearless and fun volunteers spent over 1,200 hours total at the preserve. They pulled dozens of bags of vinca, watered previously planted flora, and helped us dig holes and put over 300 new plants into the ground along areas where vinca had been eradicated.

Then, in August, we wrapped up the last trip of the year to the sound of thunder and pouring rain; being in the canyon during an almost-flood event was quite the experience to wrap up our successes!

We can’t begin to describe how grateful we are for the help, and the laughter, given and shared in Aravaipa. Without people like you who feel connected to the Sky Island region, and without the fantastic TNC staff who watch over the preserve, none of this would be possible.

To celebrate 10 wonderful trips to Aravaipa this year, here are a few of our favorite highlights from your continued efforts to make Aravaipa Canyon a thriving ecosystem for native plants, fish, and wildlife.

Caption: Volunteers working hard to dig up vinca from a steep bank along the creek in February 2021.

Caption: Volunteers and former SIA staff member Sami Hammer braving the cold creek waters of March 2021.

Caption: Cleaning dirt off a pickaxe at the end of a long day pulling vinca, April 2021.

Caption: Creekside chats (bottom photo) and hard work (top photo) in Aravaipa, May 2021.

Caption: Planting native flora along a section that’s been cleared of vinca, August 2021. Photo credit: Glen Goodwin.

Caption: Heading down the canyon to clean up patches of vinca regrowth in August 2021. Photo credit: Glen Goodwin.

See you in the canyon bright and early next year!

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