Home is Where the Weeds Are

Noxious weeds infest about 100 million acres of North America and conquer more than 3 million acres each year. You can help stop the invasion of the non-natives by paying attention to what’s in your own yard.

| May/June 2003

  • Big and hearty, non-native plants often have few natural controls to limit their growth.
  • Some weeds come armed and dangerous with thorns that no browser would go near.
  • Prolific and deceiving in their charm, leafy ground covers can prevent sunlight from reaching germinating native plants underneath.

  • Root Talon, $47. Effective for shallow-rooted plants, shrubs, and saplings. Lampe Design, (866) 334-9964, www.lampedesign.com.
  • Weed Wrench, $82 to $189, depending on size. Effective for deeply rooted large plants and small trees. New Tribe, (866) 223-3371, www.newtribe.com

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “All who wander are not lost.” As someone who has moved around a lot, I liked the slogan. It made me feel better about all the places I’ve lived and roamed. I certainly know what it’s like to be a non-native.

For better or worse, it seems modern humans have always been adventurers looking for a better place to call home. Settlers have forged their way across wilderness, more often than not at the peril of those who were there before them. Today we move around the globe farther, faster, and more often than at any other time in our history. Despite our restless searching, however, we also like to bring a piece of our roots with us wherever we go. The evidence lies, at least in part, in the fact that most of the cultivated flowers, vegetables, fruits, grains, grasses, and clovers—and nearly 70 percent of the weeds—have come to the United States from other parts of the world.

Many plants introduced to the United States are such a part of our cultural heritage and familial traditions that most of us would never dream that they’re not native species. Where would we be without wheat, potatoes, and many varieties of apples? How many times as a child did you twirl a bright yellow buttercup between your fingers? Who isn’t at least tempted every December to purchase a bright red poinsettia? And perhaps you enjoy kale as a dinner vegetable, or a salad of lettuce and cucumbers. None of these are native to this country.

Invasion on U.S. soil 

The introduction of non-native plants has been on the rise in recent years as a result of human population growth, increased international travel, and international trade. The problem becomes especially thorny when introduced plants become invasive and displace local native plants and animals, sometimes dangerously altering entire ecosystems. When a plant from another home is brought to a new environment, often the natural controls that limit its growth don’t exist. Aggressive invaders reduce the amount of light, water, nutrients, and space available to native species and alter hydrological patterns, soil chemistry, moisture-holding capacity, and erodability.

Consider hydrilla, a native of Asia, Australia, and Africa. This aquatic plant, introduced in the 1950s, has been choking generating stations and municipal water supplies in Florida and clogging rivers and lakes in California with thick green carpets that can grow as much as ten inches a day. Or consider purple loosestrife. First introduced in the early 1800s from Europe for its striking flowers, purple loosestrife quickly traveled across the United States. Today, known as the “purple plague,” it has grown into dense stands covering thousands of acres of wetlands, crowding out native plants and animals in the Northeast and Midwest.

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