World traveler I am not, although I was recently lucky enough to spend one month traveling throughout central Germany. Five of us traveled from south-central Pennsylvania to Deutschland for a vocational and cultural exchange. From mid-May to mid-June I traveled from villages to small towns, learning about the country's biodiversity and the myriad ways they protect it. The following is a brief account of the habitats and species I encountered along the way.
During our stay in the state of Thuringen, we hiked part of the famous Rennsteig trail through the Vessertal-Thuringen Forest Biosphere Reserve, one of 16 nature preserves in Germany designated as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This reserve covers 42,000 acres of nearly contiguous
mountain spruce forest. What is so interesting about the
UNESCO Biosphere sites is how they are managed. While
recreation, agriculture and other human uses may take place in
Germany does not have a state park system like Pennsylvania.
They have 14 national parks and a system of nature reserves
called Naturschutzgebiet, established under the Federal Nature
Conservation Act. We traveled to a nature reserve outside of the
town of Jena, in search of orchids. It is believed that without the
Naturschutzgebiet, orchids would probably not exist in the wild
Fortunately for us, we discovered 10 different orchid species in just over an hour. Species included the lady orchid (Orchis purpurea), a fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and a spider orchid (Ophrys holoserica). All these species of orchids are very delicate looking, with individual flowers only a few centimeters in length. Colors ranged from pale purple to white to blackishred. It was like a scavenger hunt, trying to locate these small beauties among the tall grasses and other wildflowers. It truly was a magical experience to see them in such abundance and to learn that their presence there is due in large part to sheep grazing in the park, which helps keep out woody vegetation that would otherwise shade out these special plants.
I would love to say that Germany is free from the scourge of invasive species, but unfortunately that is not the case. Species that are native to Pennsylvania, like raccoons and black locust trees, are taking over in Germany due to a lack of natural predators. Raccoons, which my German hosts affectionately called Waschbären or "wash bears,' were introduced into the country in the 1930s for the fur trade. Some escaped from captivity, began breeding in the wild, and are now well established, wreaking havoc on farms and natural habitats. Hunting and trapping have been used to try and keep the population from growing, but it appears that raccoon numbers continue to swell. Now they are overflowing into neighboring European countries.
On the other hand, something that was really fascinating for
me to see was garlic mustard in its natural habitat. While garlic
mustard is an invasive plant in Pennsylvania, dominating many
forest edges and backyards, it is
native to Germany and grows in
small patches alongside other plants.
It acted like any other native wildflower because it had native insects and herbivores keeping it
These two examples of "invasiveness" impressed on me the fact
that a plant or animal is not always
invasive. It has a home range but,
due to a certain set of circumstances,
it can be uprooted and moved
somewhere else. If conditions there
are just right, these species may
become invasive pests, like raccoons
Traveling to other countries can help grow our understanding of different natural resource management practices and the unique challenges a particular area may face. Germany, just like Pennsylvania, has a wealth of native plants and animals to protect from invasive species, land use development and climate change impacts. Perhaps we can learn from each other's conservation successes and setbacks to ensure that biodiversity thrives for generations to come.