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After Work: The Wrong Plant, The Wrong Place

…Some invasive plants have sneaked into the US landscape on bales, in cartons and even in the ballast water of old sailing ships. Some have been deliberately introduced as garden ornamentals. If you ignore the consequences, invasive plants usually have a lot going for them...

Yet, as Dona Gibbs points out, invasive plants which ruin the landscape, create fire hazards and rob wildlife of a natural habitat are still being offered for sale by nurseries.

Read more of Dona’s words by clicking on After Work in the menu on this page.

“Oh,” I sighed as Ever Enthusiastic Husband steered our golf cart through a dense stand of papery-barked trees, “Smell the eucalyptus.”

I inhaled deeply, imagining koala bears munching overhead.

Boy, what a misguided romantic I was. Those trees weren’t eucalyptus at all, although they too are Australian natives.

They were melaleucas, the scourge of Florida conservationists. Melaleuca trees spread quickly, competing and wining out over native plants. Rich with oil, they catch fire readily, a constant danger during dry times. Brittle by nature, they topple easily in high winds.

They grow with their feet in the water; they grow on dry soil. They grow just about anywhere. They are one of Florida’s many invasive plant species. Like so many others, they were deliberately planted.

Melaleucas are thirsty, very thirsty. They soak up water.

Ah, thought the land-hungry early developers, what a miracle tree. These melaleucas can turn worthless swamp into useable dry land.

Before anyone could think twice about the long-term consequences, they flew over swathes of the Everglades, sprinkling seeds out plane windows with saltshakers.

Now eighty some years later, we’re wondering how to rid ourselves of them. Controlled burning was thought to be a possibility. However, the trees produce seed three to five times a years so it’s hard to time burning so that the fire won’t trigger the release of millions and millions of seeds.

Recently, there’s been discussion of releasing “biocontrol” insects that feast on melaleucas and destroying the almost impenetrable groves.

If anyone asked me, I’d advise caution. After all, have we figured out yet what will these six-legged eating machines will turn to when they’ve eaten their way through the melaleucas? It isn’t as if they are guest workers that we can pay, thank and off they go.

Casuarinas pines are another invasive plant here in Florida. Again, these trees were brought in from Australia. They were planted by the state along the coastlines as windbreaks and in other areas as shade trees. They are beautiful, graceful trees. Who would ever see one gently swaying in the warm Florida breeze and think otherwise? At first, that is.

Planting them turned out to be a costly mistake. They have crowded out native plants and over the years have contributed to erosion.

How did that happen? You may wonder.

The native plants have deeper root systems and prevent erosion damage; the casuarinas are shallow rooted so they don’t hold the soil as well.

And when native plants go, so do the native wildlife they help support. Sea turtles and the American crocodile are cited as being threatened when casuarinas invaded their natural habitats.

So now millions of dollars are spent to get rid of what now are called trash trees.

The threat of unwanted, proliferating plants was foreseen in the 1920’s. Charles Torrey Simpson, Florida's pioneer naturalist, wrote, "there are the adventive plants, the wanderers, of which we have, as yet, comparatively few species; but later, when the country is older and more generally cultivated, there will surely be an army of them."

Some invasive plants have sneaked in – on bales, in cartons and even in the ballast water of old sailing ships.

Some have been deliberately introduced as garden ornamentals. If you ignore the consequences, invasive plants usually have a lot going for them. Lush foliage and often dazzling flowers make a statement in a garden. They are tolerant of adverse conditions and they grow, grow, grow. All that makes them tempting for gardeners.

Fact is, thirty-nine of the worst of the Florida invasive plants are still being offered for sale by nurseries.

Some of these pernicious plants have been unwittingly introduced. Several aquatic plants that are choking Florida’s waterways are thought to have gotten their foothold by aquarium owners improper dumping of ornamental aquatic plants.

While that might sound alarmist, what is known for sure is that aquatic plants are spread through the launching, hauling and re-launching of recreational boats.

I’m no stranger to the mischief that the wrong plant in the wrong place can make. I grew up in the rural South during a time when county agricultural extension agents urged farmers to plant multiflora rose to halt erosion.

It’s great for fencerows, they said. It provides cover for game, they emphasized.

Farmers took heed and planted. Multiflora rose flourished. Soon it was everywhere and almost impossible to get rid of.

Take a ride down the byways of Georgia, say an hour away from the sprawling city of Atlanta and you’ll see another sprawl – kudzu. This climbing vine clambers up trees, telephone poles, abandoned houses, old cars and any other stationary thing that’s in its path.

It too was planted to halt erosion.

On the lighter note, a couple of North Carolina towns, Blythewood and Waxhaw, hold Kudzu Festivals and even offer up kudzu-flavored ice cream and feature a kudzu leaf eating contest.

As a gardener in the northeast, I have had my share of conservation mistakes. I planted purple loosestrife in my garden, thinking it a winsome perennial. That was before I learned that it was taking over waterways and lakes. I still blush at the memory.

My atonement, I like to believe was just. In an island garden I fought a futile battle with Japanese knotweed, honeysuckle and bittersweet.

It was here I learned that as well-intentioned as they are, state agricultural agencies were still making mistakes. They provided free seedlings to stop erosion in seaside areas. Included in those bundles was Russian olive. Just a few years later Russian olive was moved to the invasive, do-not plant list.

Now as a sadder and somewhat wiser gardener, I plan to do my bit to halt the spread of invasive plants. Before I plant anything, no matter how hardy, how lush, how beautiful it looks in the pot, I’ll check the do-not plant-list.

Here’s what else the conservation experts have suggested:

Become informed, and share your knowledge.
Learn how to tell the invasive exotics from less dangerous species.
Remove invasive exotics from your own yard or land.
Don't use nearby natural areas as places to throw yard debris.
Volunteer to remove exotics from natural areas.
Support bio-control programs

And as for that grove of melaleucas on the golf course that I once thought were eucalyptus -- they’ve been bulldozed. Let’s hope it wasn’t a time when they were seeding.


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