Beware of Exotic Bullies

Youngia japonica, an invasive plant that spreads quickly. Photo: Lise Jenkins

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Eventually we all leave home, only to have someone take our place. Sometimes the newcomers are like us and occasionally they are different. If enough “different” newcomers arrive the character of the area changes.

The dynamics of change apply across all living worlds — humans, plants, animals.

It’s easy to forget that plants move, too; they spread on their own, or with a little help from us or their animal friends. Botanists describe plants which are new to an area as exotic species. While it’s hard to pinpoint, generally those plants introduced after the European colonization of North America are considered exotic; the plants that were already in place are described as native species.

Exotic species are not necessarily harmful. Many plants arrive and settle in nicely, they get along with their neighbors and don’t disrupt the existing web of life. The camellias found in gardens across the south aren’t native, but rather well-behaved exotic plants that we’ve enthusiastically welcomed.

However, some exotics are bullies — growing quickly, they reproduce, crowding out existing native plants, diminishing a habitat’s ability to support life. These bullies are described as invasive exotic plants.

Posion hemlock often blooms along the roadsides. Photo: Lise Jenkins

Damage caused by invasive plants can reach right up the food chain, at times impacting human health. Soon you will be able to spot poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), sometimes also called carrot fern, blooming along our roadways. Although its pretty flowers are attractive, this plant is highly toxic, causing kidney failure in animals and humans.

Removing established plants is time-consuming and costly: in this country we spend about $35 billion a year tackling invasive plants and their impact.

We can use our purchasing power by not adding invasive plants to our shopping carts. Simply select native or non-invasive alternatives. For ideas and credible information turn to the NC Invasive Plant Council (nc-ipc.weebly.com) and the NC Native Plant Society (ncwildflower.org).

Sadly, some of the worst thugs are popular garden plants. They are a grave threat to our local environments and should be crossed off your shopping list. On a recent garden center outing I was drawn to an attractive display only to discover it included English ivy (Hedera helix) which is listed as Rank 1- Severe Threats by the NC Native Plant Society. When I brought my concern to the sales clerk, she shook her head, saying “People like it, so we sell it.”

Gardeners, do your research so you know what you are buying. If we won’t buy garden thugs, the market for them will diminish.

Time is another powerful tool in the battle against invasive plants. Over the next few weeks, as our weather warms, get ahead of the unwanted invasives creeping into your landscape. Remove them before they bloom and set seed.

This year I’m fighting Youngia japonica, an Asian native and a relative newcomer to our area. This plant looks like dandelion, but instead of one bloom it produces a cluster of small yellow flowers. I wasn’t diligent enough last year, only noticing it in my lawn when its flowers emerged. What started as a handful of plants last season now densely covers an entire section of our garden this year. Today I’m attacking this area with vigor, hoping my efforts prove effective.

Like many endeavors, curbing the spread of exotic invasive plants comes down to time and money. The next few weeks will be the best time to break the reproductive cycle of these plants, so remove them before they set seed. As for money, we gardeners can use our purchasing power by breaking up with invasive plants — it’s really that simple.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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