Monday, June 25, 2007

Invasive species, BARC, Kudzu and Bio-fuel

Sooner or later, I am asked what the purpose of invasive species control and eradication is; why the furor, what is the ultimate end game? This line of thinking about invasive species goes to the heart of a wicked problem's fundamental properties: that interest groups, overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue, define the issue in terms of their own end goal. Dr. Anna Sher writes that “While tamarisk control often appears to be our focus, we must not lose sight of the real goal: ecosystem restoration, of which removal of tamarisk is only one of many components.” [Tamarisk Coalition]

I think we can enlarge her purpose when the work of Dr. Lew Ziska, Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory, USDA-ARS, Beltsville, MD is introduced. Assuming we can get Congress to pay attention, Dr. Ziska proposes to: “Determine the value of Kudzu as a biofuel crop, develop harvesting and handling procedures needed as a feedstock for gasification and/or ethanol fermentation.” He is in no way suggesting the planting of kudzu, but given that kudzu cover about 8 million acres of marginal, unproductive and abandoned farmland in the eastern United States, he sees a positive eradication and the restoration of this land to either environmental restoration using natives or to continued food and or fuel production using non invasive agricultural crops.

Here from an extract prepared for educational use, he writes that “Mature stands usually have a plant every 1 to 2 square feet and may contain tens of thousands of plants per acre.
Production of biofuels has primarily focused on crop species that are high in sugar and starches since these materials can be easily converted in ethanol. High biomass plants are being considered as an energy feedstock for gasification, in the short-term, and as a feedstock for cellulosics ethanol production in the long-term. Kudzu roots may be as high as 30% starch, and above ground leafy production may be both a feedstock and source of cellulosic ethanol.”

And just to be absolutely clear let me reprint his policy statement: “Policy. Establish an incentives program for the utilization of Kudzu for biofuels that includes a program to re-establish Kudzu-free acreage to be planted to a more sustainable, non-invasive, bioenergy crop.” Here then is a direct, possibly for profit reason to eliminate kudzu which does not require a complicated understanding of the relationship of our well being to natural areas, but one that is easily understood. Remove the aggressive plant, keep corn in the food chain replace the invasive species with agricultural crops which can be maintained and controlled, most likely with those which do not need the rich fertile soils that corn wants.

The mass migration of farmers from the fields of the south to cities in the middle part of the twentieth century left millions of acres unworked and open to invasion. Now we need these fields and the plants which they could support and projects such as Dr. Ziska’s enhance the definition of invasive species.

If you are interested in this project please write your congressperson; ask them to support funding. Remember too that this request is what we call pork, an ear-mark, if you will. Do not be dissuaded; there are good cuts of pork and then there are those cuts open for discussion. One man’s needed project is another’s bridge to nowhere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Invasive Species and Sustainable Landscapes

My involvement with invasive species seems at times to be a single issue, negative presentation full of commands and limitations. The principle challenge of invasive species is the rampant attack and eventual competitive advantage of an invasive species which allows, eventually, in extreme cases, the creation of a “biodesert” or monoculture. The reduction of species diversity within natural areas becomes a beacon call to action. The endless calls to ban new plants and exotic species at times rise to tidal wave proportions, and yet, there always seems to be a missing positive or proactive side to the question at hand.

What is it that we are asking gardeners in our disturbed landscapes to do? Go native and forsake a millennium of gardening traditions? Replace exotics with natives within the landscape design paradigms on a one species substitution for another basis? If one of the premises underlying western gardening traditions is the taming of nature, and, if taming nature has come to mean, intentionally or unintentionally, the destruction of nature as we currently understand it, what purpose is served by item substitution working with the fundaments of traditional landscaping? From generations of gardeners and from agricultural; practices comes a desire for order and a sense pf the predictable. A meadow looks great from a distance, but close up, most of us do not have the familiarity with the vocabulary of life to deal with the apparent overwhelming diversity of species. In other words from a distance we reduce the complexities [Invasive complexities March 2007] to a more comprehensible whole, but close up we are at a loss to understand the syntax of the landscape in front of our noses.

As I have posted before, the issues surrounding and involving invasive species are a species of a wicked problem [Invasive Species; Wicked Inconvenience: part two Feb 2007], a problem whose complexity compels stakeholder to define the problem based on their particular end-goals or solutions, thereby creating a world of vibrantly differing definitions. A characteristic of a wicked problem is that there is usually one or more co-equal, and co-evolving wicked problems related to the primary problem. I have noted that global climate change fits the wicked problem definition quite nicely; however, I would submit that the definition of a sustainable (conservation) landscape would also rise to a wicked problem which is directly tied to invasive species.

I am beginning to suspect that the future of landscaping will be compelled to address the issue of biological species diversity loss. “Biodiversity losses are a clear signal that humanity’s life support systems are failing.” The quotes from Dr. Tallamy of the University of Delaware became epiphany-moments for me. “We need biodiversity because biodiversity runs the ecosystem on which we depend. The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more services (air, water, food, benign weather systems, carbon dioxide sequestration, garbage recycling etc.) it will provide for us. With ever growing human populations, we need more ecosystem services. But as we kill off our biodiversity, we are getting fewer and fewer services from our ecosystems. We are modifying nearly all of the earths land for our own purposes. Two million acres, an area the size of Yellowstone National Park, are lost to development each year.”

The landscape of the future needs to find a new philosophy which can seem at the present to be at odds with our thousand year tradition on at least one level. We must start to tear down the fences that delineate the garden from the outside and begin to see our personal spaces as part of a larger whole. Instead of asking what plant has not insect pest. We need to begin asking which species host the most insects, which in turn support our birds and other fauna. This is a difficult proposition. In our suburban landscapes we go to extremes to limit unpredictable biology and to present order. Sometimes we do this for personal health reasons, and sometimes for deeply imbedded fear. We strive to both keep ticks and snakes at a distance, preferably in a museum or other controlled environment.

The idea of going to a local garden center and asking which tree supplies the food requirements of the most caterpillars is, to say the least, not happening on any measurable scale. What is worse for those involved in invasive species issues in horticulture is that many of the plants that thrive well, and which are limited host companion plants for insect life in the ecosystems in which we live, tend to be the exotic invasives. A truly sustainable landscape would seem to be one that encourages biological diversity within the garden space and within the larger ecosystem. Designing such a garden such that the end user, close up, does not become disoriented and overwhelmed is a challenge.

I am not suggesting that the only consideration in the design and implementation of a sustainable landscape is biological diversity hosting and companion species planting, but I am thinking that this would be a major consideration. A sustainable landscape must be greater than the sum of its parts, and consideration must go to resources needed to execute the design and to maintain the plantings, as well as to public health and safety. Invasive plants, those that tend to limit biological diversity would be deselected under a sustainable decision matrix. The mandatory exclusion of all non natives is a differing debate, as there are some species whose exotic cousins are genetically so close as to host the same plethora of insect species: e. g. Salix.

I suspect, though, that research might possibly explain the apparent contradiction of exotics passing for native has fauna host species, when one turn to biota within the soil structure and the possible negative effects of exotics on soil life. However, since I am not proposing to base a landscape design entirely on its ability to serve as a nexus for biological diversity, but only to suggest that companion and host propensities be given a reasonably large measure of consideration when judging the design. The weighing of host plant tendencies should have a tendency to a native default, but would not exclude exotics from consideration, though many invasives might not be among the candidates because of their low host counts thereby tending to exclude them from the design.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Invasive species: Knotweed - Reply to Mr. Rice updated

In reply to Mr. Rice’s comments which I posted under the heading More Invasive Musings, May 25, 2007,, I should like to address each of his points.

I don't get your point about your nursery selling Japanese knotweed to a customer who was then angry that it took over her garden.
Neither do I.
It would seem that I unintendedly committed elision from the collision of two vaguely related ideas. Your point is well taken. I should have dealt with the name change separately and simply discussed the implications of sales of known or unknown invasives.

Although it's unfortunate that Japanese knotweed has had a number of botanical names over the decades it's not exactly news that it's name is now settled at Fallopia japonica.
I thought the taxonomists had moved on, and according to the National Invasive Species Center, the current name would be Polygonum cuspidatum Siebold & Zucc. This of course makes no difference to my efforts in reporting the story or to Mr. Rice's points.

From the Japanese Knotweed Alliance:

Japanese knotweed belongs to the plant family Polygonaceae, the knotweeds. ‘Poly’ meaning many, ‘gony’ from the Greek ‘knee’ meaning jointed.
An artefact of the history of discovery of this plant is that it has three scientific names:Reynoutria japonica - described from Japan by the Dutch botanist Houttuyn in 1777, the name was lost for 125 years.Polygonum cuspidatum - independent description by Siebold and Zuchharini in 1845. Fallopia japonica - a result of the amalgamation of Reynoutria and Fallopia resulting in the oldest name being used.
The scientific name of Japanese knotweed in current use is Fallopia japonica. Previous scientific names also include Polygonum sieboldii, Polygonum japonicum, Polygonum zuccharini Small, Pleuropterus zuccarinii, Polygonum reynoutria (in USA horticulture trade).
In Japan, the plant is commonly called itadori (meaning 'take away pain'). In its introduced range, common names include Japanese knotweed, Sally rhubarb, donkey rhubarb, gypsy rhubarb, Hancock's curse, Pysen saethwr, GlĂșineach bhiorach, Mexican bamboo, Japanese bamboo, Japanese fleece-flower, wild rhubarb and crimson beauty. "

Without a doubt I seem to be behind the times on knoweed's nomenclature, though this is a case of writing without proofing; as Jenn from Invasivespecies, points out, Mr. Rice is, of course, correct. Mostlikely explains this whole situation: one of catching up from a thousand year tradition of modifying or negating "nature".

And can't the nursery staff recognize Japanese knotweed when they see it?
Currently they would not see it because we no longer sell it,. The point I so ineloquently failed to make was that at the time of sale in the 1990’s, “new” was the market norm, and “new” is what the public wanted, and “new” is what we focused on. So the sales staff at that point in time would have rang the bells about the plants ”newness".

And who put it in a pot and gave it a tag in the first place?
Back in the 90’s we grew most of our perennials from cutting or divisions, so the answer is: I did.

Your propagator? A wholesale grower?
I did

So a new plant arrives... does no one bother to find out anything about it?
Actually we spent a great deal of time finding landscape uses for this plant and extolling the design potential. The 300 year tradition of landscape design in the United States, firmly rooted in European grand garden traditions did not include a section on invasive. In fact, the gardening tradition we operated in called for the removal of natural areas around our houses and home and the replanting with artificial controlled designs based on centruy old gradening traditions and methods.

Sorry, but the nursery is 100% to blame.
In today’s market, I operate under a policy of information sharing with my customers so that together we will make the right decisions. Changing rules and changing ideas based on changing science, allows us to judge in hindsight. Fair enough.

I am extremely skeptical(sic) about much of the hysteria surrounding invasives, but any nursery selling Japanese knotweed, even the variegated form, should take full responsibility for the consequences.
I agree. With the amount of information readily available, a seller is taking responsibility. Thus when it took over our entrance way in the late 1990’s, we stopped selling because of our own empirical data.. Today one can go on line and read for many hours about the challenges to natural areas this plant causes.

So what did the nursery do for the customer?
Hearing the story, I shared eradication notes with the customer. I am sure that this does not meet expectations where customers have no responsibility and all must afll to the seller. I think that a sale is a two way proposition requiring one to remeber "caveat emptor" to a small extent. When the knotweed was sold, we sold it as a "new" and exciting pklant to add to a home opr commercial landscape. We kept our word based on the information at the time. But life goes on, and because of new ideas and information the policy changed. I explained the change in our/my understanding of the interactions between natural areas and our landscapes and the work we do to educate our customers. We have unilaterally stopped selling Lythrum over 12 years ago. The loss of sales approaches $500,000, but the gain to the environment and our long term quality of life is immeasurable. We also have discontinued Bradford pears, many varieties of Miscanthus, and many common vines which were popular in the early 90’s such as porcelain berry.