By Ken Solis
If you have ever seen someone’s eyes fill with fire or dismay when they hear a name like “knapweed,” “buckthorn,” or “teasel,” it might very well be because of a high school teacher with no formal background in botany or environmental science. The one who made us aware of them through her diligent and inspired work was Betty Czarapata.
She first became aware of invasive weeds in the early 1990s when a friend told her about a nasty weed called garlic mustard. Once she knew what garlic mustard looked like, and saw how it was overrunning not only wildflowers but entire landscapes she had known as a child growing up in rural Wisconsin, she became alarmed and then took action – botanical background or not.
Tragically, invasive weeds lost a determined adversary, and wildflowers lost a dedicated friend on December 27, 2003, when Betty lost her two-plus-year battle, against ovarian cancer.
Betty’s legacy will live on, in piles of pulled invasive weeds lying on the ground and patches of wildflowers breaking through the snow each spring. In the past 10 years or so, Betty’s list of accomplishments in preserving our natural areas is impressive. Some of her key works include acting as Weed-Out’s (a volunteer invasive weed control effort in Milwaukee County) first director, writing a school curriculum on invasive weeds, acting as the educational session coordinator for a Plants Out of Place conference, giving innumerable slide presentations at schools, conferences, and service organization meetings, and acting as the Weed-Out volunteer coordinator in Whitnall Park – one of Milwaukee County’s largest and best known parks.
Consistent with Betty’s spirit, she undertook Whitnall park even though it was challenging to coordinate, and even though she was a Waukesha county resident who lived next to Muskego Park – which also needed weeding. Whitnall park is seriously overrun by garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, and buckthorn, with the exception of a couple of locations where Betty helped to coordinate volunteers. It is my hope that we can coax the park system to name one of the key forest sections after her and place a bronze plaque there. That forest section has a great population of green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) – a less common relative of jack-in-the pulpit.
Ironically, Betty’s legacy of fighting invasive weeds will likely only increase after her departure. In 1999 Betty self-published and promoted an educational manual on Wisconsin’s major invasive weeds. That manual is now out of print, and will be supplanted by the book, Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest, which will be released by the University of Wisconsin Press later this year. (The book is for sale at the Wild Ones Bookstore.) Many well known invasive experts have also made contributions to this book, including Randy Hoffman and Kelly Kearns of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Dave Egan, the editor of Restoration Ecology Journal. But in the end, it remains Betty’s project. It just goes to show you what a seemingly quiet and unassuming person, with no formal background in the environmental sciences, can accomplish with passion and dedication.
Betty leaves behind a loving and supportive husband, son, daughter, and two new grandchildren. As much as she will be missed working in nature’s parks and preserves, she will be missed as a wife, mother, and grandmother even more. As her husband Lee wrote, “She moved on to heaven’s gardens, prairies, and woodlands.”
Ken Solis is a member of the Milwaukee-SW/Wehr (WI) Wild Ones Chapter, and Milwaukee County Park People Environmental Committee Chairperson.