What’s Invasive?

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.

closeup of yellow hop clover flowers in a field
Large Hop Clover, also known as Yellow Hop Clover or Golden Hop Clover, July 15, 2022, Vermont.

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.

18 thoughts on “What’s Invasive?”

  1. When we moved into our house, our next door neighbors were a really cute, ancient couple who loved birds and gardening. The guy that bought the house swore he would maintain the feeders and not make any changes to the gardens. And then he did the exact opposite. In fact, his front yard doesn’t have a single plant in it. It looks really weird. Interesting how your post and my post both get at how we differently envision our space from how others do. I have no doubt our jumble of a garden will be a detriment to our home sale in the future. We better all get used to non-native plant though, the native ones are all going to die in the coming heat.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, each owner gets to do what makes them happy and the seller can’t control that or complain if something changes (even if the buyer breaks a verbal promise). I get that. I guess I made a bad assumption; since the guy was recently employed by a conservation nonprofit, I thought he’d see the value of providing wildflowers for bees, insects and birds (seeds). I was wrong. Lesson learned: don’t visit or view photos of a home you’ve sold because you’ll likely be disappointed with what you see.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We actually swing by our old house in DC every few years, and I’m happy to say that as of our last visit, everything we planted is still there. Although I’m unhappy to report that we planted everything way to close together so it looks like a mess.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha – that’s awesome! Reminds me of driving by the house I lived in from birth to age nine when I was in college. Wait, how did our house shrink so much? And that maple tree out front, the one I used to climb that was ginormous, with limbs at death-defying heights. How did it shrink?

        Perspective is everything 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My heart aches for the death of your beautiful garden. To each their own, it’s true. But I seriously doubt lupine and columbine would have ravaged the Idaho wilderness. In Maine we have two dangerous plants. Eurasian milfoil which chokes our lakes and purple loosestrife which will take over a meadow in no time flat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, lupine and columbine are native wildflowers in the forest there. That’s why I was shocked at his excuse. Yes, the fireweed he kept is native, but no more so than the lupine and columbine. Clearly he needs to get out into the forest more!

      I agree, there are some non-native plants that do lots of damage when introduced into an environment, and that fits the government’s definition of invasive. Removing them makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s so sad about your flowers. I agree with your thoughts about invasives. The worst of the worst need to be fought vigorously. Many others cause problems but are here to stay, so we should find a balance between controlling them and learning to live with them.

    I suspect the buyers of your home in Idaho simply didn’t want the wildflower beds. Calling them “invasive” is a lazy and misleading way to justify destroying something beautiful and beneficial.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My gut feeling is they thought the wildflower garden too untidy, wild, and unruly. It was – they’re wildflowers! Still, one could have easily trimmed some back from the walkway, done some thinning and still kept some for the bees and butterflies. Just shows how different people can be, how varied their priorities in life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry about your flowers. To me it seems like another case of extremism where one doesn’t bother to judge single issues but group them all under one umbrella such as “invasive”. Speaking of owners of former places of abode, I recently visited my childhood home. The new owners had chopped down a tree in the front yard that I used to climb in, removed the carport that gave the house its distinctive look, and worst of all, painted a mural of Yosemite Sam on an exterior wall facing the street!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Visiting childhood homes is fraught with angst and regrets! This most recent episode with my wildflower garden removed, noting how much it bothered me, has convinced me to never look at that house again, in photos or in person. Instead, I’ll rely on my photos to spark the memories that make me happy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure that “invasive” as a category makes sense. Most plants that I know as native in my part of the world were invasive anytime between a few thousand and a few million years ago. And they have changed in the invasion, adapting until they are native. Even the Lantana that most people agree are a problem, will perhaps not be a problem in a couple of thousand years as the ecosystem tames it. As for invasives like wheat and apples, they will cede ground much faster

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I don’t like the term as it’s being used by so many today. The planet and its ecosystems are dynamic and ever-evolving on some scale, sometimes fast enough of humans to notice, especially now with human-caused climate change. It takes a big ego to believe one can “tame” or control nature.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Humans are a silly and gullible species, in addition to being invasive.” Yep…. I was thinking about “invasive species” the other day, thinking, “This is one planet. Is anything really invasive?” But…

    Lately I’ve had the thought that the ubiquity of news and opinion (thanks Internet and social media) has foisted upon us a very complicated and yet incomplete sense of “reality,” and people seem to be trying to fence it in with actions that are pretty random but within their little sphere of helplessness appear to be “taking control.” I see the demolition of your garden as impotence in action. If it didn’t have an “philosophical motive” I’d think it was like the people who ripped the hibiscus hedge out of the front yard of my San Diego house and removed a beautiful ginger plant — they just didn’t like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right, Martha; the more “out of control” our world seems, the more we want to feel in control of something, no matter how small. The most bizarre thing about the whole episode, though, is that both lupine and columbine are native wildflowers in the national forest there. I think he just found my wildflower garden too messy.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a beautiful perspective and I’m sad about your flowers. It’s interesting as I just made a post about fighting an invasive, black swallow-wort, that I’m a little obsessed with. But I also think it’s true that not much can be done, and that we have to be careful about lumping everything together in one bucket. So many “weeds” are awesome and beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Angela. Finding the best balance, determining whether the new plant/animal is causing more harm than benefit, seems the key. It just seems there’s a “remove all invasives” bandwagon lately that’s driven more by social media and algorithms than sense. No doubt, some invasive species are best battled and held at bay if possible because of the damage they do, but as you note, there are “weeds” that to some (me) are beautiful wildflowers feeding insects and other pollinators while to others they’re the scourge of their lawn/landscaping. It just seems egotistical that in today’s age and rapidly changing climate we humans can control anything anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So sorry about what happened to your gardens at your last house! Social media and Google maps makes it easier to glimpse parts of our past. The person that bought our last house cut down a lot of trees along the driveway but left the landscaping. Who knows why. I leave many of the plants that are considered invasive here. You can actually get fined for leaving certain species on your property but I’ve never heard of someone getting a ticket. The non-native House Sparrows and European Starlings in my yard make tasty snacks for the native Cooper’s Hawks. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There you go – sometimes the invasive species are a good food source for the natives! 🙂 The entire concept of “invasive” is deciding something alien/new has a negative impact on we humans, to our gardens, yards, lakes, crops. Seeing things change with time can be hard. But can we really know if movement of “invasives” around the globe isn’t actually a necessary re-balancing by nature because of what we humans, the most invasive species of all, have wrecked with our pollution, over-population, and resulting climate change?

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s