Carol Bishop Miller confronts the invasives in her garden
MY PARENTS HAIL FROM a small southern town where the mysterious, vine-swaddled ravines and amorphously enshrouded trees have inspired an annual kudzu festival. As a child, I shinnied up sleek mimosas and stripped their ferny leaves to make an ill-scented “pea soup” in our play kitchen on the porch. My playmates and I engaged in chinaberry battles; for target practice I pitched privet berries at the clothesline wires. We sucked the nectar from the super-sweet flowers of Japanese honeysuckle, stashed cops-and-robbers loot among dark pools of Vinca minor, and played hide-and-seek behind the veil of English ivy skirting my grandparents’ porch. We were never reprimanded for consorting with invasive species.
But today, as a longtime member of my local wildflower society, I am keenly aware that a major threat to the survival of many native plant species is the proliferation of invasive, nonnative plants. These species, brought here from around the globe, have launched themselves into the wild, where they compete with and may replace indigenous species, altering ecosystems in the process. Kudzu, mimosa, chinaberry, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, vinca, and English ivy are notorious examples, but regional lists of ecologically and economically damaging alien plants, compiled by government and private organizations, comprise hundreds of species.
And herein lies my shame, for of the representatives of 27 genera profiled in Auburn University research ecologist James H. Millers Nonnative Invasive Plants of Southern Forests, 12 of them grow in my yard! And although I have participated in an invasive plant removal project on nearby land trust property, it has taken me four years to bring myself to cut down my last Asian bush honeysuckle.
My hypocritical failure to achieve an ecologically correct garden is in part attributable to pure laziness. Take the English ivy, for instance. Thick swaths of Hedera helix cling to the low walls of stacked stone denoting our backyard’s three levels, and even (horrors!) creep up into the trees. Eradicating the ivy buildup of four decades and replacing it with a native vine with similar winter sparkle—say, Carolina jessamine or smilax—is a daunting undertaking. And while I mince around, snipping strands of the vine off tree trunks in a puny effort to prevent its setting fruit, my husband, who is openly fond of the ivy, assures me that my moral hand-wringing won’t amount to a hill of beans when the Great Meteor smacks the Earth.
Another flimsy excuse for my stubborn foot-dragging is that, having never met a plant I didn’t like (crabgrass excepted), it galls me to give up plants I’ve grown, loved, and recommended all my gardening life. Nothing, for example, brings more vibrant, long-lasting color to the winter garden than nandina, and, yes, Nandina domestica, too, is on Dr. Miller’s demon list.
As a perennial pessimist, I can’t help believing that we are moving inexorably toward a global flora, and that, do what we will, the established invaders, at least, are here to stay, and mass casualties among native species will ultimately occur.
Fortunately for biodiversity, others are more hopeful. In his book The Future of Life (Vintage, 2003), two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning natural scientist and author Edward O. Wilson offers reassurance that, now that we know more about the threat to our biosphere, we may still act in time to save it. Indeed, among the encouraging developments emerging from the Workshop on Linking Ecology and Horticulture to Prevent Plant Invasions (held at the Missouri Botanical Garden in December of 2001) was the endorsement by such powerfully influential groups as the Garden Club of America, the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, and the American Society of Landscape Architects of a voluntary code of conduct for the replacement of invasives with noninvasive species in garden environments. Similarly, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society are among environmental groups who have recognized and are working to reverse the threat of invasives to endemic species.rsquo;… a change of heart occurs,” writes Wilson, “when people look beyond themselves to others, and then to the rest of life.rsquo;
Would that I could look beyond my own backyard. But I’ll have to do something about that ivy first. H