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Illinois hunting and fishing

Garlic mustard is a pot herb brought to this country by early settlers. It invades woodlands, crowding out native wildflowers like woodland phlox (pictured). All photos by Chris Young

Landscape plants can harm natural areas

June 06, 2011 at 12:42 PM

Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge

Home landscaping is enjoyed by millions of Americans. It is a national recreational pastime that pumps billions of dollars into the economy. However, an increasing number of popular non-native landscape plants, especially shrubs and trees, are spreading to natural areas and aggressively competing with native plants.

Landscape plants spread to natural areas by various means. Seeds are carried long distances by animals. Many plants reproduce by vegetative structure, that is, a small piece of plant will reproduce a new plant. The spread of these invasive plants into natural areas is often not realized until many decades after introduction. Once established, there are few natural controls.

The threat of non-native landscape plants to our natural areas is growing due to several factors. Our increasing human population has caused greater land disturbance and land use. World trade has increased, which allows more varieties of non-native plants to be imported into the U.S. Many non-native plants are colorful, fast growing, heat and cold tolerant, long lived perennials, have a high reproductive rate and aggressively occupy new areas. These characteristics are ideal for the landscaper who wants to quickly fill an open space.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Autumn olive threatens to overwhelm native vegetation like this Penstemon.

Popular landscape plants that are invading our natural areas include butterfly bush, burning bush, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, Chinese wisteria, autumn olive, Russian olive and some varieties of ornamental grasses. We’ll soon be seeing others show up as they spread from the urban landscape to natural areas. These plants are commercially available in Iowa and Illinois, but some states have already restricted the sale of some species.

Purple loosestrife, now banned for sale in most states, is a prime example of a non-native landscape plant that has significantly impacted local wetlands. Other examples include garlic mustard, which now dominates shaded areas in our region, and crown vetch, which has aggressively spread to open grassland areas.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Japanese beetles arrived in a shipment of Iris bulbs.

There are associated impacts of introducing non-native plants in the U.S. related to the spread of disease and insect infestation. Japanese beetles were first found in 1912 in New Jersey in a shipment of Japanese iris bulbs and by the late 1980s the beetles had reached the Midwest. We all know the rest of the story. In 1930, the fungus that caused Dutch elm disease was first found in Ohio in a shipment of logs from France and by 1970 over 77 million trees had been killed. Our newest threat from Asia, the emerald ash borer, was found in about 1990 in Michigan, has now killed tens of millions of ash trees and is spreading rapidly in the Midwest.

The war on invasive plants in our natural areas is becoming more important than ever due to the increasing number of species and the rapid rate of spread. Currently, over 100 million acres in the U.S. are covered by invasive plants with millions of acres being added each year. Control efforts and follow up habitat restoration are being impacted by our nation’s dwindling dollars for rescue of these natural areas. Volunteers and conservation organizations have become important players in control programs for invasive plants. In addition, state and federal laws now prohibit the sale of some invasive plants.

Illinois hunting and fishing

A white-throated sparrow dines on a honeysuckle berry. Birds can easily spread the seeds of invasive plants in their droppings.

City dwellers may not understand how their home landscape could possibly impact natural areas located miles away. However, birds and other animals (deer, rabbits, opossums and raccoons) are also urban dwellers and may carry the freshly eaten seeds for many miles before depositing them in a fertilized packet of defecation within natural areas. Home landscapers can make a difference in the battle against invasive plants in our natural areas. When shopping for plants, especially shrubs and trees, avoid non-native plants that the label identifies as aggressive, self-naturalizing, quick-spreading, prolific and pest free. Promote responsible landscaping by planting native plants.

Ed Britton, member of the Northwest Illinois Green Team, is a Wildlife Refuge Manager at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

This article first appeared in the Freeport Journal-Standard.

Copyright 2011 The Journal-Standard. Some rights reserved.

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