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My Turn: In defense of invasives and wild plants

I’ve always had a dream of a beautiful garden that flowed around my house like the ones you see in gardening books, and now I have one. I guess I should more accurately say I have a garden with a house in its midst. I inherited much of it and added a good deal of my own. It’s stunning and a terrific amount of work.

Over the years as I’ve cultivated my vegetables and cultivars, especially after the rain and steam heat we’ve recently been having, I’ve made the acquaintance of my wild plants – careful, I didn’t say weeds – that always crowd in when conditions are right. Have you ever noticed how they know to snuggle up to bigger plants – beans, tomatoes or the established perennials? Besides the ubiquitous grass, there is chickweed, sorrel, yellow dock, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, stinging nettles – all of them, I’ve read, highly nutritious and tasty pot herbs!

So, as I “weed” the garden in order that the tender things I have brought in and am watering and feeding may thrive, I get to thinking, “What right have I to root out these valuable wild plants in favor of fancy and tender cultivars?”

For quite a while now, I’ve been reading about wild herbs – simples, they used to be called. These non-hybrid plants are full of nutrients and minerals. For instance, herbalist Susun Weed says stinging nettles contain chromium, cobalt, iron, phosphorus, potassium, zinc as well as B complex including thiamine, riboflavin and carotenes. The stalks and leaves supply niacin, protein, manganese, ascorbic acid – to name just a few.

In herbalist terms, stinging nettle is nutritive, a diuretic, an antiseptic, anti-diabetic, anti-rheumatic, astringent, expectorant and so on. Stinging nettle alone could put the pharmaceutical and supplement companies out of business!

But these plants are presumably all natives and, though they thrive at the expense of my hybrid cultivars, they are not aliens and so are not invasives. I must say up front that I hate the name invasives. It manages to make it sound like it’s the plant’s fault that it’s here and thriving and causing us to cut and dig and spray and sweat and swear – It’s war! – when in every case I know of, we humans brought these plants into our environment. I bet you’d be surprised at some of them – like blackberry, wild rose, thistle, white mulberry and wild mustard. Yes!

And others that we haven’t invited into our gardens for beauty or food aren’t just conducting a blitzkrieg against our innocent land. For instance, have you ever noticed where purple loosestrife chooses to grow? Wet wasteland often by the sides of roads where runoff toxins accumulate. Why do you care that it’s there?

Recently I found a wonderful book by Vermont writer and herbalist Timothy Lee Scott. The book is titled Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives. In it he charts benefits to the environment from invasive plants.

Purple loosestrife controls erosion; it removes nitrogen and phosphorus and cleans wastewater. (I believe nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizer promotes the huge growth of another invasive, water millfoil.) The villainous kudzu, brought originally to stabilize the banks of highway cuts, removes petroleum from the soil and chromium. It provides food for wildlife and nectary for bees.

It also, Scott says, protects “exhausted and traumatized land.”

And this is one of the myths about invasives he dispels. The most common charge brought against them is that they force out the native plants. In a healthy ecosystem all plants can compete and thrive, but when the ecosystem becomes stressed and wounded through physical alterations or contamination by invisible pollutants that leach into the water, soil and air, the native plants are weakened to the point where they can no longer survive.

Then the plants that Scott calls the pioneer species move in. He describes them as a “sort of hazmat” because they are capable of working to clean up the pollution or disrupted environment. And we must remember that the natural environment is always evolving. Who is really to say what is native? Surely not we, the colonizers! Ecosystem succession is natural, and Scott describes it in this way:

“The successions of plant pioneers in the unfolding ecosystem prepares the soil for other species to follow, first by protecting land from further erosion; then by enriching the soil with large quantities of biomass and providing essential nutrients with uptake capabilities; and, finally, by balancing microbes in the soil ecology. These plant pioneers essentially create life out of destruction.”

And here’s something else to think about: Invasive plants not only have healing properties for the land, they have medicine for human illnesses as well. Take that most maligned plant, Japanese knotweed. It is sprayed and hacked, yet it rises each year, a shapely green fountain of foliage trimmed with a froth of white flowers. It’s a determined and forgiving plant – perhaps because it knows that it contains antioxidant, antimicrobial, anticancer, neurological, hormonal and wound-healing properties. Stephen Buhner, author of Healing Lyme, recommends Japanese knotweed as part of a treatment for Lyme disease and its related complications.

We’ve only been looking at the chemical abilities of these plants, but there is one more thing we should be aware of. Plants, researchers and healers are coming to understand, have intentions – and they are not always directed for our benefit. Plants understand that we humans are just one part of the ecosystem. I said that Japanese knotweed was forgiving of all the abuse we give it, but maybe it’s just doing its job. Scott quotes evidence from Buhner’s research that Japanese knotweed spread in much the same trajectory as Lyme disease, in some cases preceding it.

Buhner says in his foreword to Scott’s book, “ ‘Invasive’ plants are messengers.” Now we are moving away from the technology of Western science, which we are slowly acknowledging often lags behind more spiritual approaches to understanding our interaction with the natural world and the way it relates to itself and to us. Buhner says in the same foreword, “Nature doesn’t make mistakes.”

We are the ones who are making the mistakes, and in so doing we are causing nature a lot of upheaval and work. Still, we are beginning to understand that even if we manage to destroy ourselves and our civilization, nature will persevere – sighing and groaning as we already see – and gradually restore a right relationship among Earth’s inhabitants, though we might not be among them!

We need to set aside our person-oriented view of the way we want our world to look and work and specifically, in this case, listen to what the plants are telling us.

They have wisdom they’re trying to share. They are the messengers. Let us not kill them.

(Katharine Gregg is a poet and gardener in Mason.)

Hunter dan, Do I hear you saying, we (humans) are part of the circle of life and oh, yes - evolution ain't done yet?

Yes, we ARE part of the circle of life . . . as much as some folks have forgotten that fact(or chose to ignore it.)

Interesting column. And it opens up a Pandora's box of questions. Ultimately, you're talking about humans and their place in the natural world. Some humans think we have no place in the natural world. They think we can only be a negative. Others realize that we ARE part of the natural world. What does this all mean? Should we legislate away the ability for humans to have any impact whatsoever on the environment? Should we let humans have the freedom to do whatever they wish without regard to it, after all, we're part of it, right? This is a difficult question and I feel that the answer - as with most things - is somewhere in the middle. Sure, some things that were once introduced species(read, "invasives") are now a common part of the landscape. Japanese honeysuckle is not native to the hills of north-central VT where I grew up - yet the thickets of it that are there - and have been there for generations - provide year-round food and shelter for a host of animal and bird species. On the other hand, I'm dying to hear of the positive effects of, say didymo(aka "rock snot") - an invasive that is threatening aquatic habitat and biodiversity in rivers and streams throughout New England.

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