Sunday, May 31, 2009

Invasive species: The Great Green Divide

Some workhorses of traditional ornamental gardens, have jumped the fence, and become natural area terrorists. Uncompromisingly these invasive species dominate and change the shape and community around them. They destroy the web of weak ecological interactions creating a few strong relationships and depress the ability of the local ecosystem to sustain itself. They alter the culture of the place and overlay a new foreign structure bending the natives to their will. These ornamental invasive plants create biological deserts which negatively impact all the ecosystem services that were in the system, replacing some with new services while denying others especially those necessary relations in the food web. Ultimately the invasive while able to duplicate some of the regulating services such as CO2 sequestration begin to reduce the efficacy of genetic diversity through reduction of habitat services.

As all politics are local, so too any conversation about invasive species must at some point become a local discussion. Perforce my invasive plant discussion is centered in and on the Mid Atlantic’s Chesapeake Bay region where is not enough to simply remove the invasive plants, but rather, a plan of management including restoration or replacement needs to be created and followed; if not you will be enduring your own eternal Sisyphian chore.

An example of a foundational, dependable basic gardening solution plant in the Chesapeake Bay region of the Mid Atlantic is English ivy, Hedera helix. Solving many garden and landscape problems, English ivy used as a ground cover, covers the landscape with a uniform evergreen blanket. Ellen Russell writes:
Evergreen groundcovers can help hide a fence, fill in shady, bare spots on lawns and underneath trees, and provide interesting color and foliage to flowers and plants. Groundcovers climb over rocks and yard debris, and carpet an area in color where no other plant can grow. As an added benefit, evergreen groundcovers keep their foliage and color throughout the year, continuing to provide beauty and color without ever loosing the clean look of the planted area of yard.”
This monochromatic, pleasingly deep-green, living blanket smothers weeds and provides a feeling of a well kept property. The serenity and peacefulness that comes from an easily read and simplified garden design does not tax the landscape literacy of all who pass by.

On the other side of the great invasive species divide, the most attractive traits of a traditional garden setting are the ones that most offend. The very lack of species diversity, so prized along a drive or on a difficult to maintain embankment disturbs the sensibilities and desires of habitat and refugia creation. The lack of genetic diversity and the reduction of the available food from diverse host species send a message of environmental corruption and long term ecosystem destruction.. English ivy, shade kudzu, is an organic wild fire spreading through the local ecosystem. Even its evergreen trait is anathema in this geographic area and stand out as an violation of the syntax of the local native landscape where the color of winter is brown with hints of green randomly encountered, not an eternal carpet of green.

And so the partisans on each side of the green curtain contend with the issue of invasive species. Blithely certain that they are right, mostly unaware of the wicked inconvenience of the invasive species problem, entrenched behind their differing philosophies, the two sides dig in, talk past each other, and plan to stop the ideals and concepts of the other. Short term market preference is pitted against long term public values.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dangerous Beauty and other Invasive Species Traps

Helen of Sparta, later Helen of Troy, daughter of Zeus and Leda or Nemesis, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, and sister of Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra was for Troy a dangerous beauty. Her arrival on foreign shores as an exotic alien was filled with unintended consequences that early detection and rapid response might have averted. Of course the analogy is not quite congruent as Helen had not the time to bring off-spring into Troy and assiduously displace the natives, but the effect was the same none-the-less.

In the war on invasive species between traditional gardeners and naturalists, beauty is a battlefield frontline from which there is little room for retreat. Learning the grammar and syntax of a landscape includes becoming aware of the particular norms of beauty inherent within the landscape language of user and the beholder. The pristine, well ordered, finished edges of a traditional garden impart a sense of control, and therefore safety. The security of a manicured hedgerow and the repetition of identical cultivated varieties chosen for their function, form and texture are an integral part of the beauty of the place. Like paint upon a blank canvas, the gardener creates a scene around which the randomness of the world swirls but within which all is calm and peaceful.

The pyramid of eco-system services in the mind of a traditional gardener rests upon the informing, cultural services, reflecting back on the historic provisioning services of forestry and agriculture. Faintly and transformatively, in a Chomsky sense, are references found to the eco-system services of provision and regulation, but rather an assumption that diversity is served by the importation of new species and that erosion and other regulating services are best served by the shaping of the land. The great gardens of today rest upon the shoulders of constant, vibrant, short and quick, eternal cycles of fundamental eco-system services such as atmospheric gas regulation and storm dampening. Pollination and genetic variety are built in and assumed by the dependent artisans of land-shaping traditions.

'In the other corner of the epic conflict are the environmentally literate proponents of naturalized landscapes steeped in the syntax of Rousseau. The pyramid of eco-system services is inverted in the eyes of traditional gardeners to stress the basics of regulation and provisioning, recognizing that the resources thus provided will allow for agriculture and landscaping. The expectant primacy of regulating services knows that if you maintain it the rest of the services can come. The informing services of human health and welfare, of culture and history fade to secondary importance, and the fight is joined at the battle line of beauty.

In the minefield of the controversy, the wicked inconvenience of invasive species issues rears its head, to bring in other constituencies such as capitalism and property rights and the immediate access to natural resources as a given in which human labor is added to create value. There lurks the idea that resources on touched by man have limited value until the craftsmen touch them. Try to borrow money for a bog and see how far we are from an eco-system based public valuation of the resources surrounding and supporting us. To tell a gardener that they may not increase the diversity of their holdings or that they will be limited to native only selection is to touch several third rails of calm conversation. To wave the red flag of property rights in front of sustainable living proponents is to throw fuel on a passion.

We must find away to change the pyramid of eco-system services into equal weighted components. We need gas exchange and art, pollinators and corn, weathering and recreation, genetic diversity and fuel, and we need them all in equal measure at different moments of our lives. The paradigm of eco-system services allows for common conversation and provides a framework for progress. The wicked inconvenience of invasive species is an infinite set within the infinite set of sustainability that includes climate change, energy needs and human health.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Invasive species search: Imperata, bloodgrass, cogongrass

I am looking for stands or specimens of gogongrass, Imperata cylindrica, such as the cultivar known as ‘Red Baron’ that may have reverted in part or in whole from the red form to green. Please write to me a ipetrus(at) with any information you may have.

According to the web site at Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia, “The ‘Red Baron’ cultivar of I. cylindrica has bright, showy, blood-red leaf edges. It is frequently sold across the U.S. in plant nurseries and is widely available over the Internet for ornamental use. It is often described as being non-invasive, although published proof of this claim is lacking.”

“Cogon grass can invade and overtake disturbed ecosystems, forming a dense mat of thatch and leaves that makes it nearly impossible for other plants to coexist. Large infestations of cogon grass can alter the normal fire regime of a fire-driven ecosystem by causing more frequent and intense fires that injure or destroy native plants. Cogon grass displaces a large variety of native plant species used by native animals (e.g., insects, mammals, and birds) as forage, host plants and shelter. Some ground-nesting species have also been known to be displaced due to the dense cover that cogon grass creates” - Plant Conservation Alliance, Alien Plant Working Group.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wicked Invasive Swans

Invasive species issues invite strongly-held differences of opinion. The very definition of an invasive species, and, therefore, the concept itself, is constantly shifting from one group to another. One person’s invasive is another’s favorite collectible ornament of artistic expression. The central idea of an outside species, a new comer taking over the neighborhood with disastrous results for the current residents, is reflected in local political debates on land use and the common good. Like all thing political, invasive species issues are all local.
The impact of invasive species on the Chesapeake Bay eco-region and its eco-systems is so large and complex, both in geographic as well as temporal scale as to render the issue unsuitable for sound-byte driven media. Invasive species negatively impact 23 of 24 eco-system services from those that regulate to those that inform. Invasive species of the Chesapeake Bay region effect storm dampening, and erosion, genetic diversity through habitat loss, as well as reduction of food, fuel, feed, fibers, flowers and forests. And invasive species upset cultural and informing services from recreational use to educational examples.

Some invasive species create a common opposition. Kudzu has few friends and the Norway rat is still feared by many. Purple loosestrife and the mute swan on the other hand cause opposing camps to form. In the case of Lythrum spp. and Cygnus olor the major constituencies split the eco-system services matrix in two. Those who would remove control or manage the invasive species place a higher value on the eco-system service of regulation and its direct impact upon the providing (habitat) service. The other group that would wish to keep, encourage, or enhance the inclusion of non native species currently labeled invasive, place a greater value on the informing (cultural ) eco-system service and its relation to the provisioning (agriculture, forestry, hunting) service.

A recent article by Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post Staff Writer, on Saturday, May 16, 2009, clearly lays out the great divide. In the words of a colleague, charismatic mega fauna get all the glory and attention especially when they are not eating up the food chain but down. In a blog post in 2007, I noted the swan conundrum as a model of impossible choices, and recently posted Lythrum & Lionfish - Invasive Beauties which addresses the same challenge. Because each side moves straight to the dichotomy before it seeks common ground, hyperbole and excess spring forth to battle. This is the wicked inconvenience of invasive species.

Because invasive species issues are a wicked problem, stakeholders, falling to understand that there will be no right or wrong answer, just better or worse ones, develop their own individual solutions and work back from the goal to a group specific definition. The result is a myriad of competing definitions most out of sync with each other that invite sharp-edged controversy rooted in definitions of exclusion. Layered upon this messy debate is the conflict between those who hold to the precautionary principle and those who follow the proactionary principle, as well as market preference versus public value choices. So, one side wants to remove the exotics, claiming the good of the commons and the community. The other side claims individual rights and freedom to invoke the non est disputandum gustibus clause of the constitution as well as the show me the incontrovertible scientific proof first chapter of the declaration of independence.
This the dialogue is not about the various valuations and accordingly the importance of the Chesapeake Bay’s eco-systems services to all of us collectively and individually, but rather about, broken necks and fairy tale birds as environmental hazards. We should be trying to find the common ground, we rather climb to the ramparts. We need the ecological systems of the Chesapeake Bay to be functioning well to receive the full value of the services, but we need to remember that this is not a grand effort to exclude the works and art of mankind from the world. We are more than cogs in a grand machine for we are masters of technology that can be used to maintain and sustain the eco-system services upon which we depend.

Life is about making many choices simultaneously, some better than others. Life is about finding the next breathe of air, and then moving on to another more pressing problem, until the next breathe of air is required. Life is about compromise and consensus, choices and challenges. Today we seem to be dividing into to philosophical camps, each that thinks it knows whence the next breathe of air comes. Each of us oscillates between our internal public vale set and our current market preferences not always finding that they are congruent with in ourselves. We must find common cause to not only defend the Chesapeake and the regions around it, but to live in it and with it sustainably.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Invasive Plant Council British Columbia

May 12, 2009 – Reporting Invasive Plants in BC communities has never been easier—just dial 1-888-WEEDSBC. It’s never been easier to report invasive plants! The Invasive Plant Council of BC is pleased to announce the establishment of a provincial toll free hotline, 1-888-WEEDSBC, to which callers can report invasive plants and make a difference in their community. A member of the Invasive Plant Council team will receive calls and answer questions about invasive plants, how to identify specific species, and offer contacts for regional invasive plant committees and local resources. Use of the provincial hotline is open to all members of the public, and is part of “Eyes Across BC,” an outreach and awareness initiative partnered by the Invasive Plant Council of BC and the Agriculture Environment and Wildlife Fund. Eyes Across BC programs involve reporting invasive plants through the hotline, and training workshops where participants can become informed “spotters” of invasive plants. These programs are FREE! Please call 1-888-WEEDSBC to find out how to get involved in local efforts to stop the spread of invasive plants. Invasive plants are the second greatest threat to biodiversity after habitat loss, and can cause damage to the environment, economy and human health. Having been introduced without their natural pests and predators, these unwanted plants can form dense infestations, displacing native species and disrupting natural ecological processes. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, there are an estimated 485 invasive plant species in Canada, and weeds in crops and pastures alone cost approximately $2.2 billion annually. In BC, farmers and ranchers lose an estimated $50 million in crop revenue each year, and then pay millions more in control measures. Impacts associated with the introduction and spread of invasive plants are not unique to one industry, organization, or community – all citizens, regions, and industries in BC are affected. Help your community protect local resources by managing invasive plants. To find out more about invasive plants in your area or to seek alternative plants, visit or phone 1-888-WEEDSBC.
The IPCBC is a grassroots, non-profit society working collaboratively to build cooperation and coordination of invasive plant management in BC. IPCBC workshops, activities, and events educate the public and professionals about invasive plants and their potential risks. This toll free hotline will continue to assist the IPCBC in “spreading the word, not the weed” through outreach and education; thus minimizing the establishment of invasive plants. Membership is free and open to anyone willing to work collaboratively. Find out more at . For more information, contact the Invasive Plant Council of BC (IPCBC) • (250) 392-1400 • 1-888-WEEDSBC •

Gail Lucier
Program Assistant
Fraser Basin Council

Monday, May 11, 2009

Complicating Factors in Invasive Plant Management: Circumstances Beyond Our Control?

Complicating Factors
in Invasive Plant
Circumstances Beyond Our Control?

August 11 and 12, 2009
to be held at the
University of Pittsburgh
at Johnstown, PA

Managing non-native invasive species to mitigate the threat to the world’s biological diversity is getting more challenging. Our quality of life depends on the health of our natural resources, but limited funding, human development, introduction of new species and complicated species interactions combine to make the job tough.

In this seventh Mid-Atlantic conference attendees will not only obtain useful background on the issues surrounding this biological problem but will also learn:
Thresholds for action
Tools for effective and efficient removal
What the new administration has done and
plans to do to control invasive plants.
How deer make our job three times as hard
Get the most from your volunteer program
Techniques for preventing non-native
plant colonization

Who Should Attend:
Nursery and landscape professionals
Natural resource specialists
Managers of parks, preserves and
conservation districts
Invasive plant management and
restoration specialists
Extension agents and environmental
Public and botanical garden managers
and supervisors
Researchers, students and gardeners
Garden and outdoor writers
Golf course and Recreational Land Managers
Volunteers who want to know more