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Guest Opinion

A new take on invasive plants


Standing out on the canal bridge, everything was hushed. Nothing moved. Then, a pop.

Seconds later came the sound of a sprinkle of things hitting the ground.

Small seeds danced on the asphalt as they hit all around me from the thicket of vines winding up the trunks and draped over the branches of the maples and river willow on the banks of the canal.

Finally, long, elegantly curved, velvety seed pods whirled and wafted down onto the lane and the gravel mounds and pooled waters of the canal.


When we moved here more than 30 years ago, with our 7-year-old daughter and one on the way, we delighted in the new beauty of the place, sights and sounds that did not inhabit our former home on the banks of the Chesapeake. I remembered the first night we heard this popping and sprinkling and were mystified then enthralled.

I posted a text to our neighborhood thread. It seems maybe a little silly to get so excited, but really, isn’t our life on this chunk of rock whirling through the vast emptiness of space made of just such small joys and wonders?

What happened next, was not what I expected.

Me: The wisteria pods are popping. Exciting times!

Neighbor 1: Where are they?

Me: Along the canal by the bridge.

Neighbor 2: We hate them!!!

Neighbor 3: They’re really pretty…on other people’s property.

Neighbor 2: They’re non-native, taking over the world, and killing trees. I don’t care how pretty they are.

It caused me to pause and consider things. I understand the destructive impact of invasive species. Their displacement of native plants, their tendency to aggressive monoculture and the resulting degradation of biodiversity.

And yet, when you look back in the geologic record, the Earth and its creatures have been radically remade and reshaped countless times. Scientists estimate that at least 99.9% of all species of plants and animals that ever lived are now extinct. Ten thousand years ago, North Africa was green and lush with trees and flowing rivers. Today, it is home to the most arid landscape on Earth, the Sahara Desert. Glaciers have come and gone in at least five different ice ages. And it isn’t always slow and gradual.

As The Committee on Abrupt Climate Change of the National Academy of Science says in its publication “Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises”:

“Large, abrupt climate changes have affected hemispheric to global regions repeatedly, as shown by numerous paleoclimate records. Changes of up to 16°C and a factor of 2 in precipitation have occurred in some places in periods as short as decades to years.”

This process of change is the norm on our orb. And what some define as an “indigenous landscape” is simply one whose history we haven’t fully followed.

So should we just be laissez-faire? No. I’m just not sure exactly where we draw the line.

I love the long, purple blossoms of loosestrife, the vast flocks and syncopated flight of starlings, the gorgeous blooms and fragrance of mimosa trees, the exotic fruit of the white mulberry, the striking violet vase-like flowers of the paulownia, the long arcing vines and ridiculously delicious fruits of the wineberry. All invasive.

I just don’t think it’s realistic to stop this. Some estimates I’ve seen place “invasives” as 40% of the vegetation in some states.

A scorched earth pogrom can have unintended consequences. Scientists are now finding out, Phragmities, an invasive Asiatic reed, may very well have an important role to play in saving marshland as sea-levels rise.

And the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) widely prescribed for invasive plant control, is now seen as having a hand in the devastation of the bee populations worldwide, with profound implications for agriculture and wild plant propagation.

Maybe we look for ways to shape this change, instead of trying to stop it.

Maybe I’m just being a tired old fool. I am tired of anger and confrontation and conflict. Then there is the Taoist notion of living in harmony with the process of transformation ultimately underlying this world, which has always rung a bell for me.

Coming back to our wisteria, heck, I’ve spent the last 30 years with my clippers each spring and summer, decapitating the ridiculous number of sprouts in our yard, lest they overrun everything.

Still, every spring I adore the magnificent drape of purple blossoms in the trees, their intoxicating perfume, and I will listen every winter to hear those magical sounds, that simple joy, the pop of something new, of life raining down on me. We’ll adapt, we’ll figure it out. We have the knowledge and tools. We’ll be alright.

Michael Lynch lives in Upper Black Eddy.

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