When I sold my home in Idaho, I befriended the couple who bought it. I was sad about leaving my beloved wildflowers behind – mostly Lupine and Columbine – but I was most upset about the day lilies. My father had dug them from his family homestead in Kansas in the 1980s and planted them at his home in Washington. When I moved to Idaho in 2005, he dug some up so I could plant them at my new home. They thrived, and brought me much joy, especially after my father passed in 2009. Leaving in July of last year, as the lilies were in bloom, I worried digging them up then wouldn’t work. The purchasers promised me they’d wait until fall, dig some up and mail them to me, along with some lupine and columbine seeds. Such relief! And, true to their word, in October I received a package with the bulbs and envelopes of wildflower seeds from my garden, for which I expressed my gratitude.
Last week, to my horror, I saw that my entire wildflower garden has been removed by the purchasers. All the lupines and columbines – gone, along with a few Shasta daisies. The bees, butterflies and dragonflies must be as bereft as me. The only thing left, according to the husband’s post on Facebook, was a few “volunteer” fireweed plants that I had let grow among the columbines. Only those, he said in the post, weren’t “invasives.”
And what replaced my carefully nurtured lupine and columbine? Grass. And a few commercial bedding plants, including one (I forget the type) that originated in New York where the wife is from and had been kept alive by the husband’s parents in California until they purchased a home.
My grown-from-native-seeds lupine and columbines were invasive, but that New York plant isn’t?
Thankfully, the bed where my father’s day lilies resided couldn’t be seen in the photos the husband posted. But I’m guessing they got rid of them, too, along with the irises a neighbor gave me as a housewarming gift.
I know, I know. It’s their home now. They can do what they wish. Still, it hurt to see. A gut punch. And the husband works for the Idaho Conservation League! I’ve “unfriended” the husband on Facebook (the wife isn’t on social media) because I don’t want to see anymore painful photos. He’ll never know.
This whole, sad episode got me wondering about what’s truly invasive. How is that defined, for plants and animals?
The U.S. government provides this definition:
As per Executive Order 13112 (Section 1. Definitions) an “invasive species” is a species that is:
1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and,2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.USDA National Invasive Species Information Center
Where I think most individuals, including the couple who purchased my Idaho home, go wrong is that little word – and – at the end of subparagraph (1), which leads to subparagraph (2). The lawyer in me knows that little word is imperative; one can’t ignore it.
To be invasive, the plant or animal must be more than just non-native. I mean, if you read Hawaii by James Michener, as I did when I was in my twenties, you know that plant life on the Hawaiian Islands started with migrating birds stopping to rest and shitting out seeds. Talk about invasive! Yet without those bird-pooped seeds, now plant life would have started on the volcanic rock.
And let’s not forget: the most invasive and destructive organism on the planet is us. Humans.
So, I find it ironic that so many humans are keen to remove “invasive” plants (i.e., non-native), even those doing no harm, without a second thought to the daily damage they themselves do to the environment they’ve invaded.
The Vermont gardening Facebook page I joined a while ago, to learn more about the sorts of perennials people plant and have success with in my new home, has been awash with dire warnings about certain invasive plants. It’s usually started by someone like me, new to the area, posting a photo of a plant and asking for help identifying it. “Get rid of it! Pull it by the roots and burn it! Invasive! It’ll take over your garden/yard/raised bed!”
I’ve noticed a sharp increase is the concern level people express when told a plant or animal is invasive. Three alarms! It’s like the cool thing, now, to point out that a plant in someone’s garden, yard, or field is invasive and urge them to destroy it. Doing so, they get to be the smart one in the room, identifying it and describing how they’ve removed it from their own garden (or are trying to, because, you know, some plants are hard to kill) and you should, too. Those posts get the most attention from Facebook readers.
I’m reminded of the 1980s oat-bran muffin craze. Live longer! Live healthier! Just eat an oat-bran muffin every day!
And put on 10 pounds in a month. Those muffins pack a ton of calories! But if you weren’t on that fad train, you were either stupid or had a death wish. So went the group-think.
The reaction to invasive plants feels similar, i.e., the current craze. Maybe it’s because these people do recognize climate change is real, that, for example, many trees and plants are dying because of insects moving to new places as temperatures change. That’s tragic and sad, yes. But honestly, on a micro or macro level, without slowing or halting climate change (which few countries have the political will to actually achieve) what hope is there to stop it? And is declaring war on a plant, a wildflower, deemed invasive (by whom?) but not detrimental to the local environment or the creatures that inhabit it (as my home’s purchaser said about the Shasta Daisies also in my wildflower garden) a productive reaction to feeling unable to control climate change?
No. It’s counterproductive.
Humans are a silly and gullible species, in addition to being invasive.
Let me be clear: there are some plants and animals that are not native to an environment and when introduced – either on purpose or by accident – do tremendous harm to that environment, usually out-competing native stock. That’s hard to watch, but again, are attempts to control it productive, or counter-productive? How much can humans control, and should they, when the error they’re trying to correct was most likely caused by them and will continue to occur because, well, humans are what they are.
The Wikipedia entry on Invasive Species offers some perspective, including the fact that most negative introductions were caused by humans.
Invasion of long-established ecosystems by organisms is a natural phenomenon, but human-facilitated introductions have greatly increased the rate, scale, and geographic range of invasion. For millennia, humans have served as both accidental and deliberate dispersal agents, beginning with their earliest migrations, accelerating in the age of discovery, and accelerating again with international trade. Notable examples of invasive plant species include the kudzu vine, Andean pampas grass, English ivy, Japanese knotweed, and yellow starthistle. Examples of invasive animals include the New Zealand mud snail, feral pig, European rabbit, grey squirrel, domestic cat, carp, and ferret.Wikipedia – Invasive Species
As the Wikipedia article notes, the definition of “invasive” is poorly defined and quite subjective. Rather like a conspiracy theory, eh?
And not all “invasives” create negative impacts. Some are positive. Just two examples cited in the Wikipedia article:
Asian oysters, for example, filter water pollutants better than native oysters to Chesapeake Bay. A study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found the Asian oyster could significantly benefit the bay’s deteriorating water quality. Additionally, some species have invaded an area so long ago that they have found their own beneficial niche in the environment, a term referred to as naturalisation. For example, the bee Lasioglossum leucozonium, shown by population genetic analysis to be an invasive species in North America, has become an important pollinator of caneberry (Rubus spp.) as well as cucurbit, apple trees, and blueberry bushes.
Some invasives are simply neutral.
As an example, I recently noticed a small, low-growing plant with yellow flowers in the fields where the boys and I regularly walk and run. They looked like clover, but those flowers are typically purple or white. Google Lens identified it as large hop clover, or golden clover, or yellow clover. I learned that it’s a Eurasian plant, first introduced in the U.S. in 1800 as a pasture crop. So, while technically “alien” and thus considered invasive to those easily alarmed, it doesn’t appear on any state list of invasive plants or weeds. Why? Because it causes no drastic change to the ecology where it grows.
And don’t get me started on the whole weed vs non-weed argument. (See an earlier post on local wildflowers with “weed” in their name.)
So. Can we, please, all take a deep breath and chill a bit about invasives? Or at least the vast majority of them that don’t actually harm the environment they’ve been introduced to, by, um, that most-invasive species, humans?
I mean, how much can we, individually or even as a community, really control any of this? Slow it down? Maybe, but at what expense? Control it? I don’t think so.
As long as humans continue dashing about the world while increasing their numbers in unsustainable ways, and since climate change is real and here to stay because we’re too stupid, unwilling, or unable to reverse that trend, I think the stoic approach is to do the best you can in your plot of earth but not freak out over what you can’t control. I think one’s psychic energy is better spent demanding elected officials take climate change seriously, right now.
Mostly for the worse, we humans have changed our singular environment, the earth. We can’t turn back the clock. The climate is and will continue to change in ways that scare and harm us. Rather than trying to stop all change – it’s too late, it’s already happening – I believe we need to adapt to and accept the changes we’ve already unintentionally wrought, whether we like each or any of them or not.
As for my Idaho home’s purchasers? I’m saddened I misread them. I like things to remain as wild as possible. That wildflower garden was an example. I shared videos of the bumblebees and butterflies enjoying the wildflower blooms with them, hoping they’d see the value if the garden. I left believing they would enjoy that wildflower garden and its visitors as much as I did.
I was wrong.
They, apparently, are control freaks, judging from the neatness of the bedding plants replacing the lupine and columbine, and the multiple raised beds in the yard.
I can’t control them. So, after some grieving for my lupines and columbines – and the bees, insects and birds who thrived among them – I’m letting that go. I have to.
What I can control, though, is letting a good chunk of my Vermont yard turn into a wildflower garden. Year by year it will change and evolve until – I hope – it will be a haven for pollinators, just like the wildflower garden I created in Idaho.
And maybe that hare I just saw hopping across my yard as I typed this final paragraph will also like the wildflowers. All wildlife welcome!
Feature photo: the portion of my wildflower garden that the lupine preferred, June 2021.