Free the fern: Vancouver group bands together to save native forests from invasive species

A volunteer group in South Vancouver has come together to protect one of the few remaining native forests in the city, by removing invasive species and encouraging the growth of native plants. 

Group has removed 40 tons of invasive species plants from South Vancouver forest

A woman holds a wheelbarrow filled with tools to remove invasive plants.
Grace Nombrado, executive director and founder of Free the Fern, is passionate about helping native forests thrive. (Johanna Wagstaffe/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of Our Changing Planet, a CBC News initiative to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

A volunteer group in South Vancouver has come together to protect one of the few remaining native forests in the city by removing invasive species and encouraging the growth of native plants, including ferns, salal, red flowering currant, honeysuckle, baldhip rose and ocean spray.

Invasive species are plants or animals that are not native to an area, and when they're introduced they force species critical to the survival of an ecosystem out.

Grace Nombrado, executive director of Free the Fern, says this impacts native plants, but it can also be damaging for bugs, animals and humans. 

"All these native plants have co-evolved with the native bees and bugs and the birds of the area, so in order to feed the birds and the bugs of the space, these native plants are actually planted to support those creatures in the forest as well."

The group focuses on the Champlain Heights trail system in South Vancouver, a forested area that wraps through neighbourhoods and is home to some of the oldest trees in the city. 

"There's Douglas fir trees here that range up to 160 years old," Nombrado said.

"It's a hidden gem."

Free the Fern has been stewarding the trail system since January 2021, and in that time 92 volunteers have removed 40 tons of invasive plants — about 469 city green bins worth. They've also planted over 700 native plants, such as Pacific ninebark, orange honeysuckle, twinberry honeysuckle and red huckleberry.

One of the invasive species they've been battling is English ivy, which people often fawn over as it climbs homes and adds an extra layer of green to trees. Despite its beauty though, Nombrado says it's killing native plants. 

"It spreads and it completely engulfs an area," she said. 

"There is no natural predator to stop the spread of the ivy other than humans."

A dead tree on the forest floor.
A fallen tree that died after being consumed by English ivy in the Champlain Heights trail area. (Grace Nombrado)

It spreads along the floor of the forest as well as climbing up trees, blocking them from getting enough sunlight to survive. Nombrado said the ivy also adds weight to trees, making them more susceptible to breaking and falling. 

"It's really dangerous to our forest system."

A tree covered in dead ivy vines.
A tree that has survived after having English ivy cut off of it. (Grace Nombrado)

Big bushes of Himalayan blackberries can be found all over the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, but they too are invasive and harmful to plants. In fact, Metro Vancouver says they're one of the most widespread invasive species in the region. 

The group's name, Free the Fern, came from Nombrado rescuing a sword fern from a Himalayan blackberry bush that engulfed it. 

One of the most common invasive species in the Vancouver is Himalayan blackberry. (Shutterstock)

Himalayan blackberry is considered an invasive species by the provincial government, which is working to prevent further spread of the species

Since the project in Champlain Heights began, Nombrado said they've seen the return of the Douglas squirrel, which is native to the forest. 

As well, people from all over the Lower Mainland have volunteered to weed, plant, propagate, and fundraise.

"It's actually becoming a bit of a revolution," Nombrado said. 

"I want to encourage everybody to not be intimidated by plants and nature."

Invasive Himalayan blackberries are choking out native species, including ferns and huckleberries. A group of volunteers have decided to take action and Free the Fern. As part of our series The Climate Changers, CBC's Johanna Wagstaffe dug out her gardening gloves, and headed out on the trail to learn more.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. In B.C. we've witnessed its impacts with deadly heat waves, destructive floods and rampant wildfires. But there are people who are committed to taking meaningful strides, both big and small, toward building a better future for our planet. Those people are featured in CBC's series The Climate Changers, produced by CBC science reporter and meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe and associate producer Rohit Joseph, which airs Wednesdays on All Points West, On The Coast and Radio West on CBC Radio One and on CBC Vancouver News with features on

With files from Johanna Wagstaffe


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