Observations of the Blue Ridge Naturalist

I’ve been a nature writer/photographer in Crozet, Virginia, for more than 25 years. My freelance articles have been published in numerous national and state magazines and newspapers, and I’ve written nature columns for many newspapers, as well as Virginia Wildlife, the magazine of our state wildlife department. My yard was featured on Virginia PBS stations in 1994 and again in 2005, and is the basis of my book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books, 2006).  In all of these venues, I discussed nonnative plants, including some considered “invasive”, without suffering much, if indeed any, blowback.

Home of Marlene Condon in Crozet, Virginia. Photo credit Marlene Condon

However, over the past quarter century, there has been more-and-more of a push by native-plant societies to get government entities and environmental groups to rid the natural world of so-called invasive plants, including even native plants considered “thugs” because their growth is exuberant.  Because I was concerned about the destruction of habitat and the often-extensive use of pesticides to accomplish their mission, I started writing explicitly about this movement, as in the article below.

After the publication of this article last year, nativists mounted a smear campaign against me personally, a sure sign of how weak their invasive-plant arguments are.  The lead writer never even publicly disclosed her affiliation with the Blue Ridge PRISM, a group “targeting common invasive plants in the Blue Ridge”, which would have allowed readers to question whether her comments about me were suspect. My editor certainly was duped, placing a headline of “Blue Ridge Naturalist–NOT!” over their comments. And perhaps not coincidentally, shortly thereafter, he fired me, even though I’d written for–and received high praise from–him for 11 years.

Since then, I’ve found it virtually impossible to write openly about any nonnative plants.  Media and environmental groups are cowed by these people, thanks to their numbers and involvement with various organizations and governments (local, state, and federal). Sadly, this movement is highly detrimental to our natural world that is already in very bad shape and can hardly withstand yet more negative impacts upon it. Folks who understand the senselessness of destroying functioning habitat and poisoning the Earth with pesticides must speak out publicly for the benefit of nature.

Marlene Condon, Blue Ridge Naturalist

The Blue Ridge Naturalist
© Marlene A. Condon

Bees and other kinds of insects obtain nourishment from the blooms of Weigela, a spring-blooming shrub native to Asia. Photo credit Marlene Condon

Ecologists Recognizing Value of Alien Plants

Scientists are either waking up to what I’ve been saying for years, or finally becoming brave enough to speak out against the wide-spread invasive-plant movement. In an opinion piece signed by 19 ecologists in the journal Nature, they argue that “policy and management decisions must take into account the positive effects of many invaders.”

Recognizing that “It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some ‘rightful’ historical state”, they go on to point out that eradicating or drastically reducing the abundance of invasive plants is “an impossible goal.”

Critical thinking is a must for deciding invasive-plant policy to avoid harming wildlife and wasting millions in tax dollars. A situation in California illustrates the foolishness of blindly pushing an agenda without giving any thought to the real-world consequences of doing so.

In the name of “saving” the environment from so-called invasive plants, a movement has sprung up to remove Eucalypt (Eucalyptus globulus) trees from California. These trees, brought in from Australia, now serve as the most frequented overwintering sites for the western Monarch butterfly population.

Monarchs originally roosted in native conifer stands of Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus maculatum) and Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Sadly, extensive development, logging, and poor land-management decisions have reduced the number of these native-tree stands, leaving the butterflies to rely upon non-native Eucalypts.

Ignoring the fact that overwintering Monarchs are very much dependent upon isolated stands of these trees, government plans are mandating removal of them. Does this make environmental sense? Absolutely not; eradication of the Eucalypts means no wintering habitat for Monarchs, which means they will die.

In other words, this deliberate destruction of habitat is taking place because of ideology, an illustration of the danger posed by people who have been led to believe they are part of an environmentally moral crusade. Native-plant folks out west have managed, as they have here in the East, to convince environmental organizations and government entities at every level that it is a moral imperative to remove plants deemed invasive.

But, the whole point of conservation of the environment is conservation of wildlife, without which the environment cannot function properly. Yet, absolutely no thought is given to how much so-called invasive plants support wildlife or serve important environmental functions in degraded areas.

Thus, for example, in the city of Waynesboro, Virginia, the Parks and Rec department decided it had to remove Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, formerly known as Polygonum cuspidatum) from growing along the South River greenway (Waynesboro News Virginian, March 9, 2018, “War on Weeds”). The main reason given for the removal of these plants was that they are preventing native plants from growing, but this statement is nothing more than invasive-plant folklore that gains credence by the act of repetition.

Read about virtually any “invasive” species and you will find that these plants are typically growing in disturbed areas where man or a weather event destroyed the original soil profile. As a result, the plants that had been growing there previously did not come back because they could not handle the altered physical conditions of the site. It’s why you see so-called invasive plants mainly along roadways, in parks, and along river trails—all areas easily seen by people who then mistakenly believe the exotic plants pushed out native species.

The newspaper stated that knotweed is a “formidable culprit to the river’s health”, but the true threat lies in its removal. This plant has superbly performed erosion control of soil in which native plants struggle to grow; feeds numerous kinds of pollinators when it blooms; and provides wonderful cover and nesting sites for numerous species of birds and the non-herbivorous insects that feed them. One need only to walk the trail with open eyes and an open mind to ascertain the truth of this statement.

Additionally, park employees would use herbicides to kill the knotweed. How can poisoning the Earth be less harmful than allowing alien plants to grow in areas where they are currently the most suited to thrive and thus provide badly needed habitat for wildlife?

You might wonder how the invasive-plant movement became so entrenched in environmental and governmental circles. The answer lies in the treatment of it as a moral cause in which those who agree with removing “bad” plants are virtuous; those who disagree must be bad like the plants themselves. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for folks to take a stand in opposition; no one wants to be considered immoral.

However, this undertaking is deeply flawed. Rather than critically analyzing each situation and dealing with it in the most appropriate manner, plant nativists (people who practice a policy of favoring native plants over nonnative) take the simplistic approach that demands removal of every plant designated as “invasive”, no matter what function it is fulfilling in the local environment or how well it fills what would be an otherwise empty ecological niche.

Earlier this year, for example, someone removed a Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) that was growing in a swath of red dirt along the road where I exercise. It was one of the few plants that had survived the highway department’s installation of a new guardrail. No native plants had been able to grow in the poor, dry soil exposed a few years earlier by construction, leaving an area several feet wide and long mostly devoid of plants to assist wildlife.

The Mahonia (a native of China) would have provided a very early source of nectar desperately needed by the first pollinators to become active in spring at a time when native plants in bloom are very few. Its fruits would later feed birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Now, not much exists in this area to feed either insects or birds, making the land a wasted resource.

Native or not, plants provide habitat whereas bare ground does not. Nativists disregard the reality that native plants struggle to survive under the adverse conditions of road salt, mowing, drought, and disturbed, compacted, and depleted soil. They would do better by the environment if, instead of pulling and pesticiding, they focused on eliminating the actual causes of alien-plant spread.

Removing the Mahonia near the bridge resulted in no benefit to the environment, whereas it very much negatively impacted ease of survival for many insects and birds. And in California, removing Eucalypts may well doom the wintering Monarch butterfly population.

3 thoughts on “Observations of the Blue Ridge Naturalist”

  1. I wrote her a fan mail email:
    Dear Marlene Condon,
    I just read one of your articles about the anti-immigrant attitudes many people now have about plants, and I so totally agree with you! So thought I’d send you some praise and encouragement.
    I live in Mendocino County, Ca. Our local environment is the result of thousands of years of fire farming by the Pomo peoples and the people they chased off when they came to this valley now named Ukiah. Farming with fire changes the landscape drastically. Only fire loving plants thrive.
    The invading Europeans (some of my relatives included) banned the burning. But fire cannot be banned for long.
    This land was a managed garden, before the European crowd diseases and the invading Europeans, killed most of the people of the fire farming civilization. I volunteered for two years in the Wild Gardens of our local Sun House Museum, a garden designed to showcase the agricultural plants of the Pomo peoples.
    Yet when I search on the http://www.calflora.org website, and ask for “native” agricultural plants, the results are zero. This is racism against the earlier farmers. Farming with a plow is not in any way superior to farming with fire.
    Racism is popular with many people in this country at this time. Sad!
    Appreciating your work!
    Marigold Klein

  2. Thanks for your blogging. One could argue that planting or restoring native species which actually perform services in nature for pollinators, moths and butterflies and birds, is a act of immigration. You can read this mental masturbation or you can study Heather Holm’s pollinator books and get the actual performance data of native plants for pollinators. I’m very interested in this topic of non-natives and pollinators and host species. It would be helpful to have more data about non-native species and pollinator/insect habitat. In my experience, there are fewer insects, fewer birds, fewer nesting birds, fewer turtles and snakes and fewer raptors where there are fewer native plants. Biodiversity just plummets. On the other hand there is lots of spotted knappweed, pigeons and new world sparrows in my neighborhood. You can call it what you want. I call it entropy.

  3. Dear Joe,

    Thank you for your interest. I’ll address your comments one by one.

    “One could argue that planting or restoring native species which actually perform services in nature for pollinators, moths and butterflies and birds, is a act of immigration.”–I don’t understand what you mean by an “act of immigration”, but you seem to be suggesting that native species are the only plants that “actually perform services in nature”, which simply isn’t true. I’ve studied these nonnative plants for over 40 years and I can tell you that they provide pollinators with nectar and pollen, while the results of pollinator labor–seeds–feed many species of birds. Woody nonnatives also provide nesting sites and shelter from weather and predators. I’ve documented these truths in photos and writing.

    “You can read this mental masturbation or you can study Heather Holm’s pollinator books and get the actual performance data of native plants for pollinators.”– I don’t get the “mental masturbation” point, but there’s no need for me to read HH’s book. I’m not denying that native plants feed pollinators; I’m pointing out that nonnatives do the same.

    “In my experience, there are fewer insects, fewer birds, fewer nesting birds, fewer turtles and snakes and fewer raptors where there are fewer native plants. Biodiversity just plummets.” –I don’t know how much actual experience you have, but in order to suggest there is less diversity in areas of nonnative plants, you would have needed to document the numbers through the years. Perception can deceive, especially if your world view is biased.

    “On the other hand there is lots of spotted knappweed, pigeons and new world sparrows in my neighborhood.”–I have tried unsuccessfully for years to grow Spotted Knapweed. The only place it wants to grow is in my gravel driveway. If you have lots of this species in your neighborhood, it suggests to me that your soil situation is poor. People tend to overlook the reality that plants grow well ONLY where their growing requirements are met, which is one of the reasons you see certain nonnative plants in areas where no native plants are growing. The nonnatives didn’t “push out” the natives, as folks like to constantly opine. No, the natives could no longer grow where the soil profile was probably disturbed. This kind of information should be taught to landscape architecture students, or anyone who’s going to concern himself with so-called invasive plant species, but prejudice against alien plants prevents that from happening.

    As for the pigeons and New World sparrows: If you’re suggesting nonnative plants are the reason there used to be a large population of these bird species, that can’t be true. The numbers of sparrows and pigeons have plummeted while nonnative plants have been increasing due to ever more development–it’s an inverse relationship.

    “You can call it what you want. I call it entropy.”–As for entropy, there’s no disorder, randomness, or uncertainty involved in the nonnative-plant situation. The situation is all quite logical when you understand the parameters of it properly.

    How are your eco pods doing in Eau Claire? Where deer are overpopulating an area, they tend to wipe out native plants–it’s another factor for why alien plants can seem invasive, but actually are not. It’s just that the deer left them alone, which meant they could reproduce.

    Hope this helps.

    [Webmaster: Marlene Condon is the author of the article on which you have commented.]

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