Re-upping on Reality

A book review by Marlene A. Condon©of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden:  Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books 2006; information at www.marlenecondon.com).  Please visit her blog, In Defense of Nature.  You can reach her at marlenecondon@aol.com

To the farmer’s eye, Eastern Redcedar trees “invade” his cow fields where he would prefer only grass to grow. To the ecologist’s eye, the trees signify the need for soil remediation. Photo credit Marlene A. Condon

Prefatory Comments

When I was a student in the mid-1970s at Virginia Tech, small farms surrounded the town of Blacksburg. I spent time at many of the cow farms, where I constantly heard complaints by agriculturalists about the Eastern Redcedar (Juniperous virginiana) perpetually invading their fields.

After getting my degree in physics, I moved north to Charlottesville, a 140-mile highway drive through rural areas. In the ensuing decades, numerous small farms were abandoned as it became more difficult for farmers to make a living from them.

On frequent trips back to Blacksburg, I watched as the forsaken cow fields began to fill with cedar trees. Then, as time went on, Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) shrubs began to show up as well. It took decades for those fields to become a forest of cedars, olives, or a mix of both; succession was a slow process because the soils had been emptied of their nutrients, and they were compacted by the generations of half-ton animals that had trod upon them.

What the farmers didn’t understand in the 70s, and what most people still don’t understand today, is that Mother Nature tries constantly to replenish degraded areas by sending in colonizers—plants capable of growing in and enriching exhausted soil. Because very few kinds of plants can perform this natural restorative work, their presence in an area is a sure sign of impoverished land.

Virginia Cedar, Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana), and Broomsedge (Andropogon virgincus) comprise the most-common native species that move into old Virginia cow fields, sometimes accompanied by Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) that is somewhat beyond its original range. But Autumn Olive, from Asia, is a far superior restorer. It not only enriches the soil with nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth, but also provides for wildlife far better than these other plants. I can’t think of another species that feeds such an abundance of pollinators in the spring with its fragrant blooms, and birds and mammals in mid-to-late summer with fruits and again in late winter by way of its buds.

Yet Autumn Olive is one of the most despised plants of people going after so-called invasive-plant species, the presence of which in our environment they don’t understand and have misinterpreted. For example, University of Delaware entomology professor Doug Tallamy starts Bringing Nature Home (published in 2007) with an explanation of how he came to write his book: He and his wife had moved seven years earlier to 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania where he found “at least 35 percent of the vegetation on our property (yes, I measured it) consisted of aggressive plant species from other continents that were replacing what native plants we did have.”

Despite his knowledge that the area “had been farmed for centuries before being subdivided and sold to people like [him and his wife]”, this entomologist clearly had no clue about the full story of the landscape he had bought. The presence of Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Autumn Olive, and other much denigrated alien species that occupied about a third of his property revealed a prior history that Dr. Tallamy and other invasion proponents ignore.

The farmer’s land had obviously stood idle for some years, giving the variety of plants mentioned plenty of time to move in to rehabilitate the soil. These alien species didn’t suddenly appear and grow to full size overnight; we know the plants had been growing for a long time because the author tells us: “In places on [his] land, bittersweet…was supported at the base by vines with six-inch diameters.”

They weren’t “taking over the land” by “push[ing] out any existing natives,” as Dr. Tallamy erroneously asserts. Ecological succession is defined as “a gradual and orderly process of change brought about by the progressive replacement of one community [herbaceous plants to woody shrubs] by another until a stable climax [forest] is established.” (1) If Professor Tallamy truly understood how the natural world works, he would realize he can now grow his preferred climax community of native trees only because the alien “invaders” prepared the site for him to do so.

It’s unfortunate that Doug Tallamy’s false version of nature has been given much credence and publicity. Thanks to conservationists and governments at all levels rallying around his contrived version of reality, huge areas of well functioning habitat have been, and continue to be, destroyed throughout the United States. Adding insult to injury, the “mission” to get rid of supposedly invasive plants has usually been accomplished with the use of herbicides deadly to wildlife.

Book review of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

The natural world would currently be in far better shape if years ago the press had instead taken note of urban ecologist and Harvard botanist Peter Del Tredici’s book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (first published by Cornell Press in 2010, with an expanded version out this year). Unlike Dr. Tallamy, Dr. Del Tredici recognizes the substantial modifications to our environment wrought by development and climate change, such as soil degradation that goes hand in hand with construction, and drought that is more severe and more frequent due to climate warming.

Anyone knowledgeable about plants should recognize that these changes are quite consequential for these organisms. Perhaps Professor Tallamy doesn’t “get it” because he’s focused only on insects and knows very little about animal/plant relationships. For example, he erroneously writes (2) that the Tulip Poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) “is one of the least productive forest species in terms of its ability to support wildlife—insects and vertebrates alike.” He doesn’t know Tulip Poplar blooms feed a myriad of insects along with hummingbirds, and its seeds are taken by the Eastern Gray Squirrel and other rodents, as well as birds like the Carolina Chickadee, the mascot for his cause célѐbre.

It’s a shame that Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast is referred to as a field guide on its cover and in advertisements. People are bound to think this book is mainly for identification of plants growing in urban areas, but it is so much more. Conservationists and gardeners throughout the entire country—and certainly students learning about plants—would do well to read the 29-page “Introduction”.

 The true value of this work lies in the author’s explanatory text about why the 268 covered species show up in the cracks and crevices of city sidewalks and deserted parking lots, as well as from the walls of decrepit buildings. It’s an ecology lesson that is far more illustrative than the dry text you might read in a book devoted to the subject for the classroom.

An urban Krakatoa. This sea of urban blacktop is like a volcanic lava flow, and the plants that grow here, including mullein (Verbascum thapsus) , chicory (Cichorium intybus), New England hawkweed (Hiercium saubadum), and white heath aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), can tolerate extreme heat and drought.  Courtesy Peter Del Tredici

For example, in Wild Urban Plants, the reader views a photo of an abandoned building with its fissured parking lot in which a variety of wildflowers grow. The caption likens the “sea of urban blacktop” to “a volcanic lava flow” where plants must be able to tolerate extreme heat and drought. What a superb metaphor! It conveys the environmental conditions to which these plants are subjected while also making very clear to the reader why only certain plants germinate and survive well in such places.

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) colonizing an abandoned building in New London, Connecticut. From the plants’ perspective, a decaying brick wall is just a limestone cliff. Courtesy Peter Tredici.

In Wild Urban Plants, Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is seen growing out the side of a neglected painted-brick building in New London, Connecticut. The caption informs us that, “From the plants’ perspective, a decaying brick wall is just a limestone cliff.” How marvelously enlightening!

The urban glacier leaves a trail of compacted glacial till in its wake. Courtesy Peter Del Tredici

Perhaps the most unique metaphor of all can be found in the picture of a  backhoe sitting atop a hill of dirt. The author tells us “The urban glacier [referring to the backhoe] leaves a trail of compacted glacial till in its wake.” A conglomerate of unsorted broken rocks, till does not provide amenable growing conditions for very many species of plants.

The author doesn’t go into this subject, but moss is often the first colonizing organism to move in. It secretes organic acids that break down the rocks into soil, paving the way for plants with the ability to fix nitrogen to come in, and over time, as plants die, the soil is enriched via their nitrogen, allowing other kinds of plants to live here. An understanding of this process is sorely lacking among those conservationists who insist that “invasive” plant species serve no useful purpose in the environment. In fact, it’s a darned good thing they are here, given their ability to flourish under present environmental conditions. This is the explanation, after all, for their apparent invasiveness.

Dr. Tredici’s “Introduction” should be required reading for everyone involved in conservation. With a better comprehension of how the natural world works, people should be able to realize that the United States is wasting many millions of taxpayer dollars every year to remove alien plants. And annually putting millions of pounds of herbicides into our environment (according to a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report (3)) manifests a horrendous crime against nature.

This counterproductive war on nonnative plants must be stopped quickly; far too much damage has already been done. Spread the word about this book to everyone you know.

References:

  1. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Plant+succession
  2. Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy
  3. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-01/documents/pesticides-industry-sales-usage-2016_0.pdf

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