A Friend to Aliens? Not On My Watch

In his article “A Friend to Aliens” (February, 2011, issue of Scientific American), Dr. Mark Davis posits that we should embrace non-native invasive plants because they represent the future of ecology and we had better get used to them.  By introducing these plants into our ecosystems, we have created a new set of conditions that has forever altered the ecology of our forests, prairies, and wetlands.  There is no going back.

Dr. Davis is correct.  Sort of.

There is no question that the balance of our once-native ecosystems has been radically altered with the introduction of buckthorn, garlic mustard, honeysuckles, kudzu, spotted knapweed, quackgrass, Canada thistle, and a host of other aggressive plants.  It is challenging, if not impossible, to restore one’s land to strictly pre-European settlement vegetation.  There will always be a few invasive weeds here and there, unless you employ an army of vigilant gardeners to patrol and control them.

Even once-pristine plant communities that are not actively managed are subject to invasion by non-natives, usually resulting in a plunge in populations of native plants and the overall biodiversity of these newly altered ecosystems.

Dr. Davis is under the impression that we should welcome these changes, as they are inevitable.  Resistance is futile.  Surrender now.  Learn to love the conquering hordes, for they are here to stay.  Do not worry as they consume your prairies and woodlands, snuffing out wildflowers, constricting food webs, and turning once beautiful places into unattractive and sometimes nearly mono-dimensional wastelands.

Dr. Davis also appears to believe that all plants are simply interchangeable green things that serve relatively equal functions in a given ecosystem.  As long as they’re green, who cares?

As an ecologist, I recognize that the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be stuffed back in, no matter how much garlic mustard I pull or buckthorn I kill.  We have to learn to live with these plants.  There is no way we can “turn back the clock” and restore pristine pre-settlement vegetation.  Nature simply doesn’t work that way.

Yet I persist in my efforts to create beautiful, diverse, native plant communities.  I know they will not be completely devoid of exotics, and I will constantly have to control aggressive plants, be they non-native or native (such as Box Elder, Canada Goldenrod Wild Grape, Prickly Ash, Blackberries, and Poison Ivy, to name a few aggressive natives).  But is it really any more work than slavishly mowing the lawn?  My one acre prairie requires two or three hours to burn every other year, and four to eight hours to pull and dig weeds annually.  I cannot possibly imagine mowing an acre of lawn every weekend!

I am under no illusions that my prairie will be perfect.  It’s got quackgrass and bromegrass, and even an occasional buckthorn creeps in.  But it is a thing of beauty, and has replaced a tangle of box elder, buckthorn, and Tatarian honeysuckle.  I now have dozens of flowers and grasses where I once had none, along with myriad butterflies, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and a host of other wildlife.

My efforts have provided beauty to my living environment, and a home for an untold variety of plants and animals, all in a low maintenance landscape that requires practically no pesticides, and consumes no energy except my own.

The bottom line for me is simple:  Quality of Life.

Sure, we could just give up and let invasive plants overrun our beautiful native ecosystems.  Why bother?  It’s all so inevitable.  It’s our punishment for bringing these hyper-aggressive plants here in the first place.  Now we must pay the piper for our foolhardiness.

Instead of living in a comfortable old farmhouse, I could just as well live in a cardboard box.  It provides shelter, so what’s the big deal?  Too bad there’s no kitchen, but at least you’re out of the weather.  As Doug Tallamy pointed out in his article in the May/June Wild One’s Journal, native plants support far more insects than non-natives.  Since insects form the foundation of the faunal food chain, complex food webs are often shredded when non-natives replace natives in our ecosystems.  Sort of like a cardboard box ecosystem.

I have no interest in living in a world dominated by buckthorn, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, kudzu, multiflora rose, Norway maple, Tree of Heaven, and other hegemonic plants.  I will not learn to love them, nor will I accept them as part of some weird “new family.”  These are destructive plants that threaten the aesthetic value and biodiversity of my corner of the world.  I will not go quietly into the night.  I will fight for my quality of life, for the stunning beauty of our native plant communities, and for the wildlife they support.

You will have to pry my cold, dead fingers off my chain saw before I will relent in my efforts to eliminate buckthorn from my property and replace it with gorgeous native ecosystems that sing with life.  Call me crazy, but I’ll expend the energy required to create beauty and vibrancy on my property.  I will not meekly accept the inevitability of despair and diminished expectations for my home and the creatures with whom I share it.

Fight On!