Why it’s hard to hate invasive plants

by Caroline Brown

It’s hard to be an invasive plant killer because they can be so pretty, dammit. After all, that’s why humans were attracted to them and brought them into areas where they weren’t native in the first place.

Take multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora, pictured above), for example. In the summer, its pretty white blossoms fill the air with their rosy scent. And in the fall and early winter, you get these pretty little red berries that brighten up the yard.

Now, I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable gardener who understands and favors the principle of natural biodiversity. I understand that plants like multiflora rose, Norway maple (Acer plantanoides), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus, below) are wreaking havoc on the natural biodiversity of many areas, forcing out natives and changing wildlife patterns. But, my yard is full of them and they’re all I have. If I got rid of them all, I would be looking at a pretty bleak and desolate landscape.

In a workshop I recently attended, we took a field trip to a fairly small (less than an acre) riverside restoration site that was previously covered in Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, a horrible invasive plant here in New England). The organization had gotten a grant, removed the knotweed, developed a natural habit restoration plan, reseeded the area with a conservation mix of natural grasses and wildflowers, and planted several native trees.

It cost about $20K to do this. The restored area was beautiful in a wild way, but the adjoining landowner was complaining that it was too messy. (They were expecting maybe a golf course?) One of the women in my class made the comment, I get why biodiversity is important and and why monocultures are bad, but isn’t that an awful lot of money to spend on getting rid of an invasive and bringing a small area back to it’s natural state?

This argument is very easy to understand, even more so when the invasive plant has appealing features…such as the pretty berries of multiflora rose or bittersweet, or the bright red leaves of burning bush (Euonymus alatus).

(Side note: it’s even more difficult to make the anti-invasive plant argument to someone who has bought one of these invasive plants at an established nursery…it’s beyond me why nurseries–good ones, not just big box nurseries– sell invasive plants like euonymus. Yet you see them for sale all the time. They should be ashamed.)

This is why it’s so hard to be a native plant snob, in my opinion. I can see all the logical reasons for removing invasive species and promoting and planting native ones. But….come take a look at my yard and you’ll see I don’t practice what I preach. When invasive plants are all you have and you can’t spend $20K to replace them, well….you often end up keeping them.


5 Comments to “Why it’s hard to hate invasive plants”

  1. I certainly undestand your position. 🙂

    However, I think either the private sector or the government (if it can) should help fund these types of cleanups with grant money, or money from the Clean Earth Fund. (I know there isn’t one, but there should be!)

    I don’t think $20K is a lot to bring one area back to its natural state because there is so much going on that we don’t see…this will be an area where animals may find the proper vegetation for their needs, it may be more favorable for migrating birds, maybe butterflies, etc. So much goes on in a small plot of land that makes a huge impact on other areas and species.

    In NY, along the NYS Thruway, there was an area of marsh where geese used to rest as they migrated north and south. It became so choked with purple loosestrife that the geese no longer rested there. Who knows what other imbalances in nature that caused. There was a cleanup effort going on when we moved to Oregon, but I don’t know the outcome.

  2. A good point C .

    I agree with Michelle, these plants cause a lot of problems dont they, they need to be controlled and I do think that gov’ts should get on board to help.

    I know they are working on the purple loosestrife problem here, but there’s still a lot to do on this front, isn’t there?

    Nice photo even if these are nasty plants.

  3. I heartily agree that it does not good to be a native plant snob… in the grand scheme of the Earth’s history, “native” and “indigenous” can be relative terms anyhow.

    My weakness is the buddleia. It smells so delicious, and while I know how tenacious and invasive it is – especially in my home state of Washington – it’s so hard not to want to bring it into my garden.

    On the other hand, I just about choked on my tongue when I saw the local high-class garden shop selling ragweed (that’s what I call it… others know it at scotch broom or scots broom… Cytisus scoparius). That stuff is SUCH a problem in Washington State, and SO hard to remove! It blows my mind to imagine that anyone would willingly introduce that plant, unless they just didn’t know any better.

    Gardens are by nature (no pun intended) a joint creation between the gardener and the earth. Of course there are going to be some plants in there that might be outside of the native plant umbrella… I think the trick is finding a balance in your own garden to allow elbow room for everyone.

    Another approach to reducing the invasive plants is to scrap the whole $20K rip-em-out-and-full-replant methodology, and work instead in phases. Most folks with enough money to replace that much of their garden space are paying other people to do their gardening. Those of us who save our quarters for that pretty flower in the window can do well to pick a small segement of the garden, cut back some of the existing plants (such as that crazy but beautiful multiflora rose), and put in something new piece by piece. Somehow, that sort of transition just seems more… natural… 🙂

  4. That’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know any better. We trust the garden industry…why would they sell us something that was bad? (It’s like that with all industries…why would they sell us something that was bad for us, such as transfat, bovine growth hormones, GMO foods…I could go on & on.)

    Even harder when said invasive is pretty (I LOVE scotch broom–the form is great) or smells good (like buddleia or multiflora rose). Plus..it’s even more confusing b/c what’s invasive in one area might not be invasive in another.

    You’re right about a “baby steps” approach. That’s the best way for us common folk to manage getting rid of invasives and/or replacing with natives.

  5. Well, its funny, the nursery industry holds on to and promotes these rotten plants because of economics, it is too bad they can’t just move on to better natives, or better non-native , non-invasive plants. As far as the argument that one plant may not be invasive in another region, it might eventually be, climate change has made the Japanese Silver Grass a probelm on the east coast. where it was not before.

    I think the governement which introduced autumn olive and multi-flora rose (the USDA) still distributes it, should help fix our natural communities. We have a community preservation fund that has recently has been used to restore native plant communities.

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