(This column was first published in the May 19, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Our attitude toward aliens in this country fascinates me. We seem always to equate alien with bad. When we think of these outsiders invading our lands, our minds turn to Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed, starlings and house sparrows, nutria and carp, zebra mussels and killer bees, and even West Nile virus. We forget that there are a great many aliens, especially among plants, that we love.
Among those welcome outsiders are the wildflowers Queen Anne's lace, the clovers, butter-and-eggs and dame's rocket and our domesticated morning glories, catnip, roses and tulips. And what would we do without our important fruit crops: most of our apple and cherry varieties were brought here by colonists.
Most important, don't forget us as well. Even those who have come to be called Native Americans were at one time newcomers to these western continents. Compared with them, however, the rest of us are all really newcomers.
What is necessary is to sort out the good from the bad. And among the aliens there are indeed some villains. Those we call invasives.
What makes an alien bad is formally defined by the same 1999 Executive Order that established the National Invasive Species Council: "An invasive species is a species (1) that is non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and (2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." That second clause is, of course, the critical one.
Sadly, our ancestors, the early colonists, serve as a perfect example of an invasive species. We brought to the Americas a litany of diseases, among them measles, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, whooping cough, dysentery and smallpox, against which those already here were unable to defend.
That National Invasive Species Council has now identified a number of the most serious of those villains already here: 17 terrestrial plants, 11 terrestrial animals, 11 aquatic and wetland plants, 10 aquatic and wetland animals and two microbes. Among them are some plants that we too often inadvertently contribute to our environment. We add them to our yards and gardens and their seeds escape to our wildlands. Here are a few invasives, some of which may surprise you:
Multiflora rose. Once recommended as cover for wildlife, these prickly bushes quickly take over fields to make them virtually impenetrable.
Garlic mustard. An attractive garden flower and potherb that now displaces native plants in many of our woodlands.
Japanese honeysuckle. Another escape that quickly spreads and strangles native vegetation.
Autumn and Russian olives. Often planted in yards because their fruit is attractive to birds. Unfortunately those same birds distribute the olive seeds in the wild where the trees' heavy shade suppresses the growth of other species.
Burning bush. Another garden escape, this lovely shrub that turns red in fall, flees our yards to crowd out native bushes.
If you are adding or replacing species in your gardens you should seek out alternatives to plants like these.
But what do we do once we find them and other aliens taking over our wildlands? That is a still more serious problem and one that should concern us all.
As an initial response, consider joining regional foresters, representatives of the Agriculture Department Soil & Water Conservation Division and the Nature Conservancy as well as Sally Cunningham and other master gardeners at 9:30 a.m. this Saturday May 24 at Knox Farm State Park, Route 16, East Aurora. There you will begin the Great Invasive Plant Clean-up. Help uproot garlic mustard and learn to identify many other problem plants. Wear gloves and appropriate footgear. Children are welcome.-- Gerry Rising