Weeds are making a comeback!

While the native plant movement remains strong in California and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, some communities are waking up to the fact that weeds make valuable contributions to our gardens and the wildlife that lives in them.  The British have always been ahead of us in welcoming plants from all over the world in their gardens.  The British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years.  They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.

The English garden, where plants from all over the world are welcome

In a recent article in The Guardian, an English gardener describes her journey from fighting the weeds in her garden to her new relationship with them:  “I remember writing, many years ago, about my fight to get rid of these dandelions. Clearly, I didn’t win. Now, when I am greeted by them, I am glad I lost the battle. These days, I truly consider them friends…they are welcome in my garden, because I know they do more good than harm.”

The English gardener reminds us that the war on weeds began only recently.  Going deep into agricultural history, weeds were natural forage that were a part of our diet. Weeds fed our domesticated animals, stuffed our mattresses and made twine and rope. Many have medicinal properties, but most have marketable substitutes now. They were tolerated on the edges of agricultural fields and in our gardens.

The typical American lawn, maintained with pesticides and fertilizer is not habitat for pollinators or other insects. Source: Pristine Lawn Care Plus

The war on weeds began after World War II, when chemicals were introduced to agriculture.  Pesticides were considered benign for decades.  We have learned only recently of the dangers of some pesticides. The promotion of pesticides changed the aesthetics of gardening, initiating an era in which weeds were banished from our agricultural fields and our gardens.  

Note the drone hovering over the children in a strawberry field. Drones are the latest development in chemical warfare. They are used to spot non-native plants in open space as well as to aerial spray pesticides. They are cheaper than other methods of application and for that reason are likely to increase the use of pesticides.

Do not underestimate the power of propaganda to promote the use of pesticides:  “A publishing company linked to the most powerful agricultural lobby group in the U.S. is releasing children’s books extolling the benefits of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers.”  Industrial agriculture begins the indoctrination of the public at childhood. 

Bumblebee in clover. Source: buzzaboutbees.net

Weeds made their way back into our gardens partly by evolving resistance to the pesticides we used for decades to kill them.  There is growing awareness of the impact of pesticides on insects and wildlife.  As populations of pollinators decline, we are more willing to indulge their preference for weeds such as dandelions and clover.  Weeds are often the first to arrive in the spring garden, as native bees are emerging from their winter hibernation in ground nests.  Weeds prolong the blooming season in our gardens, providing nectar and pollen before cultivated plants are blooming. 

“No Mow May” comes to America!

“No Mow May” originated in Britain out of concern for declining populations of bees.  Communities make a commitment to stop mowing their lawns in May to let the weeds dominate their lawns.  Weeds such as dandelions and clover give the bees an early boost in the spring that studies show increases bee populations.  Lawns maintained with pesticides and fertilizers provide poor habitat for bees. 

Two professors in the Midwest of the US introduced “No Mow May” to their community in Wisconsin in 2020.  They signed up 435 residences to participate in “No Mow May” and studied the impact:  “They found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks. Armed with this information, they asked other communities to participate.”  According to the New York Times, “By 2021, a dozen communities across Wisconsin had adopted No Mow May. It also spread to communities in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.”

Farmers climb on board

Hedgerows are the backbone of the English countryside.  They are a complex bramble of woody and herbaceous plants that traditionally served as fences, separating roads from agricultural fields and confining domesticated animals.  They nearly disappeared when industrial agriculture dictated that fields be cultivated from edge to edge. They are making a comeback in the English countryside as farmers realize that their loss contributed to the loss of wildlife.  The concept of hedgerows as vital habitat is slowly making its way to America.

US Department of Agriculture reports improvements in agricultural practices in the past 10 years:  more no-till farming that reduces fossil fuel use and carbon loss from the soil; more efficient irrigation methods; broader field borders for pollinators and wildlife; more crop rotations that reduce disease and insect pests; reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous run-off; reduction in diesel fuel use, etc.  These are all well-known methods of reducing environmental damage from industrial agriculture, but there is now evidence that farmers are actually adopting them. 

Nativists are late to the game

We see progress being made to reduce pesticide use and provide more diverse habitat for wildlife, but nativists drag their feet.  They continue to use pesticide to eradicate non-native plants and they deny the value of non-native plants to insects and wildlife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

In a recent comment posted on Conservation Sense and Nonsense, a nativist explains the justification for using herbicides to eradicate non-native plants:  “No one likes herbicides, but in the absence of a labor force willing to abandon its modern conveniences to do very hard work, they are important tools in restoration ecology, and methods are improving as a result of careful science to determine how the least amount of them could be used to gain the greatest amount of benefits to the maximum amount of species. Throwing those tools away is about like tossing chemotherapy or vaccinations because of that “all-or-nothing” black or white point of view that native plant supporters are being (unjustly) accused of.”

For nativists, the harm done by non-native plants is greater than the harm done by pesticides.  This equation does not take into consideration the benefits of many non-native plants to wildlife and it underestimates the damage caused by pesticides to the environment and its inhabitants.   

A Natural History of the Future

“The way out of the depression and grief and guilt of the carbon cul-de-sac we have driven down is to contemplate the world without us. To know that the Earth, that life, will continue its evolutionary journey in all its mystery and wonder.” Ben Rawlence in The Treeline

Using what he calls the laws of biological nature, academic ecologist Rob Dunn predicts the future of life on Earth. (1)  His book is based on the premise that by 2080, climate change will require that hundreds of millions of plant and animal species—in fact, most species–will need to migrate to new regions and even new continents to survive.  In the past, conservation biologists were focused on conserving species in particular places.  Now they are focused on getting species from where they are now to where they need to go to survive.

In Dunn’s description of ecology in the future, the native plant movement is irrelevant, even an anachronism.  Instead of trying to restore native plants to places where they haven’t existed for over 100 years, we are creating wildlife corridors to bypass the obstacles humans have created that confine plants and animals to their historical ranges considered “native.” 

The past is the best predictor of the future. Therefore, Dunn starts his story with a quick review of the history of the science that has framed our understanding of ecology.  Carl Linnaeus was the first to create a widely accepted method of classifying plants and animals in the 18th century.  Ironically, he lived in Sweden, one of the places on the planet with the least plant diversity.  Colombia, near the equator, is twice the size of Sweden but has roughly 20 times the number of plant species because biodiversity is greatest where it is hot and wet.

Global Diversity of Vascular Plants. Source: Wilhelm Barthlott, et. al., “Global Centers of Vascular Plant Diversity,” Nova Acta Leopoldina, 2005

 

Humans always have paid more attention to the plants that surround us and the animals most like us.  Dunn calls this the law of anthropocentrism.  We are the center of our own human universe.  Consequently, our awareness of the population of insects that vastly outnumber us came late to our attention in the 20th century.  In the 21st century we learned that all other forms of life are outnumbered by the microbial life of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that preceded us by many millions of years.  Our knowledge of that vast realm of life remains limited although it is far more important to the future of the planet than we realize because those forms of life will outlast our species and many others like us.

Tropical regions are expanding into temperate regions

The diversity and abundance of life in hot and wet tropical climates give us important clues about the future of our warming climate.  We tend to think of diversity as a positive feature of ecosystems, but we should not overlook that tropical regions are also the home of many diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, zika, and yellow fever that are carried by insects that prey on animal hosts, including humans.  In the past, the range of these disease-carrying insects was restricted to tropical regions, but the warming climate will enable them to move into temperate regions as they warm. The warming climate will also enable the movement of insects that are predators of our crops and our forests into temperate regions.  For example, over 180 million native conifers in California have been killed in the past 10 years by a combination of drought and native bark beetles that were killed during cold winters in the past, but no longer are.  Ticks are plaguing wild animals and spreading disease to humans in the Northeast where they did not live in the cooler past. 

Human populations are densest in temperate regions“The ‘ideal’ average annual temperature for ancient human populations, at least from the perspective of density, appears to have been about 55.4⁰F, roughly the mean annual temperature of San Francisco…” (1) This is where humans are most comfortable, free of tropical diseases, and where our food crops grow best.  As tropical regions expand into temperate regions, humans will experience these issues or they will migrate to cooler climates if they can.

Our ability to cope with the warming climate is greatly complicated by the extreme variability of the climate that is an equally important feature of climate change.  It’s not just a question of staying cool.  We must also be prepared for episodic extreme cold and floods alternating with droughts. Animals stressed by warmer temperatures are more easily wiped out by the whiplash of sudden floods or drought.

Diversity results in resiliency

Diversity can be insurance against such variability.  If one type of crop is vulnerable to an insect predator, but another is not, growing both crops simultaneously increases resiliency.  That principle applies equally to crops that are sensitive to heat, cold, drought, or floods. 

Agricultural biodiversity. Source: Number of harvested crops per hectar combining 175 different crops. Source: Monfreda et al. 2008. “Farming the planet: Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000”. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Vol. 22.

Historically, cultures that grew diverse crops were less likely to experience famine than those that cultivated monocultures.  The Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century is a case in point.  The Irish were dependent upon potatoes partly because other crops were exported to Britain by land owners. When the potato crop was killed by blight, more than one million people died in Ireland and another million left Ireland.  The population dropped about 20-25% due to death and emigration.  The diversity of crops in the United States (where corn is the commodity crop) and Brazil (where soy is the commodity crop) is very low, compared to other countries.  This lack of diversity makes us more vulnerable to crop failure and famine, particularly in an unpredictable climate.

Change in total use of herbicides, antibiotics, transgenic pesticide producing crops, glyphosate, and insecticides globally since 1990. Source: A Natural History of the Future

Instead of increasing crop diversity, we have elected to conduct chemical warfare on the predators of our crops by using biocides, such as pesticides for agricultural weeds and insects and antibiotics for domesticated animals.  The scale of our chemical warfare has increased in response to growing threats to our food supply.  This is a losing strategy because as we increase the use of biocides we accelerate evolution that creates resistance to our biocides. We are breeding superweeds, insects, and bacteria that cannot be killed by our chemicals.  This strategy is ultimately a dead end.

Evolution determines winners and losers

Inevitably, evolution will separate the survivors of climate change from its victims. Dunn reminds us that “The average longevity of animal species appears to be around two million years…” for extinct taxonomic groups that have been studied.  In the short run, Dunn bets on the animals that are most adaptable, just as Darwin did 160 years ago.  The animals most capable of inventing new strategies to cope with change and unpredictability will be more capable of surviving.  In the bird world, that’s corvids (crows, ravens, jays, etc.) and parrots.  In the animal world that’s humans and coyotes.  We aren’t helping adaptable animals survive because we are killing abundant animals based on a belief it will benefit rare animals.  Even in our urban setting, the East Bay Regional Park District contracts Federal Wildlife Services to kill animals it considers “over-abundant,” including gulls, coyotes, free-roaming cats, non-native foxes, and other urban wildlife throughout the Park District.  We are betting on evolutionary losers.

 

If and when humans create the conditions that cause our extinction, many of our predators are likely to disappear with us.  Bed bugs and thousands of other human parasites are unlikely to survive without us.  Many domestic animals will go extinct too, including our dogs.  On the bright side, Dunn predicts that cats and goats are capable of surviving without us.             

Timeline of the evolution of life. Source: CK-12 Foundation

However, in the long run Dunn bets on microbial life to outlast humans and the plants and animals with which we have shared Earth.  Humans are late to the game, having evolved from earlier hominoids only 300,000 years ago, or so.  The plants and animals that would be recognizable to us preceded us by some 500 million years, or so.  But microbial life that is largely invisible to us goes back much further in time and will undoubtedly outlast us.  Dunn says microbial life will give a big, metaphorical sigh of relief to see us gone and our environmental pollutants with us.  Then microbial life will begin again the long process of rebuilding more complex life with their genetic building blocks and the tools of evolution. 

Some may consider it a sad story.  I consider it a hopeful story, because it tells me that no matter what we do to our planet, we cannot kill it.  For the moment, it seems clear that even if we are not capable of saving ourselves at least we can’t kill all life on Earth.  New life will evolve, but its features are unfathomable because evolution moves only forward, not back and it does not necessarily repeat itself. 


  1. A Natural History of the Future, Rob Dunn, Basic Books, 2021

Open Letter to California Native Plant Society

A diverse garden of native and non-native plants will be the most resilient to climate change. Photo credit Marianne Willburn, Garden Rant

In a recent edition of Nature News, Jake Sigg published an announcement of a new publication and a brief description of it that was apparently written by Susan Karasoff, Outreach Chair of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society:

San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) developed Making Nature’s City: A Science-based Framework for Building Urban Biodiversity, which summarizes the key indicators supporting urban biodiversity. Local native vegetation is the base of the food web for our wildlife, including our local native pollinators, our native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Biodiversity is biosecurity. Biodiversity only applies to locally native plants and wildlife. Introduced, invasive and non-local native plants contribute to landscape diversity, not to biodiversity. Our pollinators eat local native plants and pollen as caterpillar food. Introduced plant leaves feed few, if any, caterpillar species. Caterpillar species feed the rest of our local food web. Healthy urban ecosystems are measured by the health of contributors to their biodiverse food web and habitat.

Native plants planted in plant communities are resilient to climate change. Introduced and non-local native plants and trees are not resilient to climate change. San Francisco benefits from native plants planted in plant communities. San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI)’s Hidden Nature project, done in conjunction with the Exploratorium, maps the locations of plant communities in San Francisco prior to European arrival.

Jake Sigg’s Nature News, February 18, 2022

I compared the description to the SFEI document because the description contains several counterintuitive statements.  Although the SFEI document reflects a clear preference for native plants, it does not corroborate these specific statements:

  • “Biodiversity only applies to locally native plants and wildlife. Introduced, invasive and non-local native plants contribute to landscape diversity, not to biodiversity.”
  • “Introduced plant leaves feed few, if any, caterpillar species.”
  • “Native plants planted in plant communities are resilient to climate change. Introduced and non-local native plants and trees are not resilient to climate change.”

Here are a few studies, references, and public policies that explicitly contradict these counterfactual statements.

Biodiversity is not confined to native plants

“Biodiversity is the biological variety and variability of life on Earth. Biodiversity is a measure of variation at the genetic, species, and ecosystem level.” (Wikipedia)  The Simpson index and the Shannon-Wiener index are the two most commonly used measures of biodiversity by ecological scientists.   Neither index makes a distinction between native and non-native species.  In fact, such a distinction is difficult to make and is often hotly debated. 

In San Francisco, home of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, public policy explicitly acknowledges that non-native species contribute to local biodiversity:  “Parks and open spaces in San Francisco include both native and non-native species, both of which can contribute to local biodiversity.” (Policy 4.1, Recreation and Open Space of San Francisco General Plan)

 Non-native plants are host to many butterflies in the Bay Area

Butterflies lay their eggs on plants called their host plants. The eggs develop through several larvae stages into caterpillars that feed on the host plant that is often confined to a particular plant genus or family.  Few butterflies are confined to a single plant species. For example, plants in the milkweed genus are the host of monarch butterflies.  There are many species within the milkweed genus and many are not native to the San Francisco Bay Area.  An introduced milkweed species, tropical milkweed, is a particular favorite of monarchs and it has the advantage of being available throughout the year, unlike native milkweed species that are dormant during winter months. Some have attributed the recent comeback of the California monarch migration to the widespread planting of tropical milkweed in residential gardens.

This article from the UC Davis Bug Squad says they plant tropical milkweed and two species of native milkweed in their experimental garden. Monarchs show a strong preference for tropical milkweed in their experimental garden: “In July, we collected 11 caterpillars from the narrowleaf [native] milkweed; we rear them to adulthood and release them into the neighborhood. But in the numbers game, the tropical milkweed [A. curassavica] won. From July through today, we have collected a whopping 43 eggs or caterpillars from A. curassavica. How many from [native] A. speciosa? Sadly, none.”

Anise swallowtail butterfly is another common butterfly species in the Bay Area that is dependent upon a non-native host plant.  Before non-native fennel was introduced to California, anise swallowtail bred only once each year. Now it is able to breed year around on non-native fennel and is therefore more plentiful than it was in pre-settlement California.

These butterfly species in the San Francisco Bay Area are not unique with respect to their need for non-native plants:  “California butterflies, for better or worse are heavily invested in the anthropic landscape [altered by humans].  About a third of all California butterfly species have been recorded either ovipositing [laying eggs] or feeding on nonnative plants.  Roughly half of the Central Valley and inland Bay Area fauna is now using nonnative host plants heavily or even exclusively.  Our urban and suburban multivoltine [multiple generations in one year] butterfly fauna is basically dependent on ‘weeds.’  We have one species, the Gulf Fritillary that can exist here only on introduced hosts.  Perhaps the commonest urban butterfly in San Francisco and the East Bay, the Red Admiral is overwhelmingly dependent on an exotic host, pellitory.  And that’s the way it is.” (1)

During the butterfly phase of life, butterflies eat pollen and nectar of many different plants, not just its host plant.  When native plant advocates eradicate important sources of food for butterflies, they aren’t helping butterflies.  For example, butterfly bush (buddleia) is as popular with butterflies as they are unpopular with native plant advocates because they aren’t native.  Butterflies don’t care if they are native because they are an important source of food. 

Butterfly bush is the host plant of Variable checkerspot butterflies. It is also an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees. It is being eradicated on public land because it is not a native plant. butterflybush.com

Native plants are NOT more resilient to climate change

The most dangerous of the counter-factual statements by the spokesperson for the California Native Plant Society is the claim that native plants are resilient to climate change, but non-native plants are not.  That claim defies reality and it prevents us from responding effectively to climate change. 

Here are a few samples from scientific literature that contradict this inaccurate claim about native plants.  There are many others, just Google “Are native plants more resilient to climate change.” 

  • “As spring advances across the Midwest, a new study looking at blooming flowers suggests that non-native plants might outlast native plants in the region due to climate change.”
  • “Warming temperatures affect native and non-native flowering plants differently, which could change the look of local landscapes over time, according to new research.”
  • ”Whether in natural areas or in our gardens, climate change is affecting native plants. According to the Maryland Climate Summary, our temperatures are expected to increase 5⁰ F to 11⁰ F by 2100.
    1. “Higher temperatures cause native plants to experience more heat-related stress. Heat stress causes higher water demand, a situation made worse by longer droughts.
    2. “Higher atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels preferentially promote the growth of invasive plant species, decreasing the space needed to support natural areas.
    3. “Elongated growing seasons cause earlier leaf out and bloom times, which in turn affects the animal species synchronized to the life cycles of native plants, especially pollinators.”

An appeal to native plant advocates

I am publishing this article today as an open letter to the California Native Plant Society as an appeal to their leadership to make a new commitment to accuracy.  CNPS and native plant advocates enjoy a vast reservoir of positive public opinion.  However, they put their reputation in jeopardy by advocating for policies that are not consistent with reality, with science, or with public policy.  CNPS can’t distance itself from the Yerba Buena Chapter of CNPS because Susan Karasoff has made several presentations for CNPS that are available on its website.  Native plant advocates can best promote their agenda by providing accurate information.


The Global War on Non-Native Trees

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself… the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.”

An international team of academic scientists studied the many conflicts around the world between those who find value in introduced trees and those who demand their destruction. (1) Team members were from Australia, France, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Professor Marcel Rejmanek at UC Davis was the only American on the team.

Professor Rejmanek is well known to us as the author of the chapter about eucalyptus in Daniel Simberloff’s encyclopedic tome about biological “invasions.”  Rejmanek said, “…eucalypts are markedly less invasive than many other widely cultivated trees and shrubs…they have been orders of magnitude less successful as invaders than pines and several other widely planted trees…Where eucalypts have invaded, they have very seldom spread considerable distances from planting sites, and their regeneration is frequently sporadic.  He noted that eucalyptus is useful to bees and hummingbirds and I add here that it blooms throughout winter months when little else is blooming in California.  He said,  “Conclusions about positive or negative environmental and economic impacts of eucalypts are often anecdotal, highly controversial and context dependent.”    Professor Rejmanek’s assessment was instrumental in my effort to convince the California Invasive Plant Council to remove blue gum eucalyptus from its list of invasive species.  Cal-IPC downgraded its assessment of invasiveness of blue gum eucalyptus from “medium” to “limited” in response to my request. 

Professor Rejmanek is also the author of the most recent report on plant extinctions in California, published in 2017.  At that time there were 13 plant species and 17 sub-species native to California known to be globally extinct and another 30 species and sub-species extirpated in California but still found in other states.  Over half the globally extinct taxa were reported as extinct over 100 years ago.  Although grassland in California had been converted to Mediterranean annual grasses by grazing domesticated animals nearly 100 years before then, most of the plants now designated as “invasive” in California were not widespread over 100 years ago.  Only one extinction mentions “invasive species” as one of the factors in its disappearance.  Rejmanek speculates that livestock grazing is the probable cause.  He said, “Indeed, one needs quite a bit of imagination to predict that any native plant species may be driven to extinction by invasive plants per se.”

This recap of Rejmanek’s expertise about so-called “invasive” trees and plants establishes his credentials as a reliable witness as the co-author of “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” which I will summarize for readers today.

Setting the stage for conflict

As Europeans colonized the new world in the 18th and 19th centuries, they often brought trees from home with them, motivated primarily by an aesthetic preference. When the colonial era came to an end, nationalism during the 19th century encouraged a new appreciation of indigenous flora.  When planting their own gardens and farms, America’s founding fathers had a strong preference for planting native trees.  While fighting the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote to the caretakers of his farm at Mount Vernon instructing them to plant NO English trees, but rather to transplant trees from the surrounding forests.

Sources of conflict

By mid-20th century, this preference for indigenous trees escalated to the current belief that non-native trees are threatening indigenous ecosystems.  Conflict arises when there is a “failure to account for, assess, and balance trade-offs between the eco-system services or, at times, a failure to agree on the relative value of particular services.” (1) The study identifies the tree species that are the focus of such conflicts around the world and the ecosystem services those species provide:

Conservation Sense and Nonsense has reported on many of these conflicts around the world:

  • The stated purpose of the destruction of forests in Chicago was the “restoration” of grassland that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense described the conflict regarding that destruction in one of my first articles in 2011 because the issues were similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area. The debate raged in Chicago for over 15 years, but the destruction of the forest was finally accomplished, despite opposition.  Likewise, in San Francisco after 20 years of conflict, the eradication of eucalyptus forests is being achieved.
  • In 2012, we republished an article by Christian Kull about the practical value of acacia trees to Vietnamese farmers and their opposition to the attempt to destroy them.
  •  We republished an article in 2014 about opposition to the destruction of willow trees in Australia that were planted to control erosion.  Willows are one of many examples of a tree that is considered valuable in North America where it is native and hated in Australia where it is not. The authors of the article described the arguments used to justify the project, ‘Sure, it makes a big mess and causes erosion, and nutrient release, and carbon emissions, and local temperature increases, and loss of habitat, but it’s necessary because we’re going to make Australia a place for natives-only again.’
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post by Matt Chew in 2017 about the eradication of tamarisk trees that were introduced for erosion control in southwestern US.  In that case, the survival of an endangered bird is threatened by this misguided attempt to eradicate tamarisk by introducing a non-native insect.
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post in 2015 by a South African who objected to the destruction of jacaranda trees.  In that case, the beauty of these iconic trees was the primary objection to their destruction.
Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, South Africa

Many similar conflicts around the world are described by the study, which categorizes the conflicts as focused in three areas:  urban and near-urban trees; trees that provide direct economic benefits; and invasive trees that are used by native species for habitat or food.  I will focus on conflicts in urban and suburban areas because they are close to home.

Where is conflict greatest?

The study searched for examples of such conflicts around the world and found that most were in developed countries where ecological knowledge has suggested that eradication is necessary and democracy is strong enough to enable dissent.  Such conflicts are well documented in urban areas where many non-native trees have been introduced. Based on my experience with many of these urban conflicts, I can agree with the authors of the study that they are “frequently vitriolic, as seen in letters to editors, public protests, websites, and blogs.” (1)

How NOT to reduce conflict

The authors of this study dismiss suggestions that “educating” those who object to eradication projects can reduce conflict.  Their assessment of why that approach intensifies conflict is consistent with my own reaction to being lectured about the claimed benefits of eradication projects:

“However, the concept of ‘education’ implies that opponents of tree removal are inherently ignorant or unaware and discounts the importance of their views and values.  Sceptics of environmental issues are frequently highly educated and scientifically literate, with conflict driven by fundamental values, not lack of knowledge.  Further, what one party in a conflict views as education can be viewed as propaganda by those with opposing priorities.” (1)

The authors suggest that the planning process for such projects must be a two-way dialogue that recognizes shared values, such as a strong commitment to conservation of the environment.  The authors describe some of my own reservations about eradication projects:

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself…Objective evaluation of the ecological services affected may not result in the removal of non-native trees being justified.  Indeed, in some cases the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.” (1)

There is no doubt that the demand to destroy eucalyptus in California is a case in which removal has become an end in itself that is not justified.  These are some of the accusations used to justify the destruction of eucalyptus that have been disproven by academic scientists without getting eucalyptus off nativists’ hit list.

Source: Conference of California Native Plant Society, 2018

Pessimistic conclusion

The study concludes that we should expect plant invasions around the world to increase and that increased wealth and democracy will make conflicts about tree eradications more widespread.  The authors “suggest that conflict should be seen as a normal occurrence in invasive species removal…Avoiding conflict entirely may be impossible…”

I can’t disagree with the authors of this study about the poor prospects of resolving conflict regarding the destruction of non-native trees that are the heart of our urban forest in California.  However, I am grateful to the authors for their understanding of the issues and their respect for introduced trees as well as those who advocate for their preservation. They understand that lectures by those who demand that trees be destroyed despite the functions they perform are condescending and exacerbate conflict rather than resolving it. 

A Postscript

Jake Sigg has been the leader of the crusade to destroy eucalyptus forests in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years.  He and I have debated this issue many times, without resolution.  In his newsletter of January 20th, Jake seems to acknowledge the futility of our debate as well as his motivation to create a native landscape. It seems he has reached the same conclusion as the authors of the international study of the inevitability of conflict about the destruction of non-native trees, although he concedes that he won’t quit trying…and neither will I. 

“For years I’ve been fighting tree huggers, who understandably don’t want to cut healthy trees down.  The blue gums are handsome brutes.  In my eye I see the rich diverse native biological communities that they displaced; those I fight with don’t see that and don’t value that.  So you can see the communication problem at the beginning.  The same consideration plagues many contentious issues in the world.

How do you explain this to them?  Mostly, you can’t; you do what you are able to do.  This is not an age for listening to fellow beings.  I find it hard to do.  David Brooks, a favorite, wrote a fraught opinion piece in today’s 
NYT.  He has just about thrown up his hands, as have I—except that I can’t—and neither can Brooks.”

Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction escalated beyond riparian areas. Glen Cayon Park is one of 33 parks in San Francisco where most eucalyptus trees are being destroyed because they are not native. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

  1. Ian Dickie, et. al., “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” Biological Invasions, 2014.

The need for diverse urban forest and the obstacles to achieve that goal

Matt Ritter is a professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Director of Cal Poly Plant Conservatory.  He is the author of several books about California’s unique flora, including A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us.  He is considered an expert on the horticulture, ecology and taxonomy of the Eucalyptus genus.

Click on picture to view Professor Ritter’s presentation

In October 2021, Professor Ritter gave a presentation to the California Urban Forests Council, entitled “Underutilized Species for the Future of Urban Wood and Urban Forestry.”   He began by explaining why it is important to identify new tree species for our urban forest.

  • “Baja is moving to Oregon,” said Ritter to set the stage.  Within 50-80 years trees living in California now will no longer be adapted to the anticipated warmer, drier climate.  Trees killed by wildfire in California are not returning.  Forests are quickly converting to grassland and shrub.  As of 2018, California had lost 180 million trees to drought, disease, bark beetles, heat, and wildfire, which is nearly 5% of the total tree population in California.  Adding subsequent years to date, we have probably lost 7% of all of our trees.
  • Trees in urban areas will help Californians cope with warmer conditions because they cool our cities and reduce energy consumption.  Fewer trees will mean a lower quality of life, for us and for birds.  The loss of our trees reduces carbon storage, which contributes to more climate change. 

Ritter then explained why we must diversify tree species in our urban forests.

  • There are over 60,000 tree species in the world and only 7% of tree species are found in urban areas around the world.  In California our urban forests are even less diverse.  There are only 234 tree species on average in California’s urban forests.  The average number of approved tree species for planting in California’s municipalities is only 49 and few species on those approved lists are native to California.
  • Diversity of tree species ensures greater resiliency that enables our urban forests to survive changing conditions.
  • Only 9% of tree species in California’s urban forests are native. 
The native ranges of tree species in California’s urban forest.

An inventory of Oakland’s urban forest (street trees, medians, and landscaped parks only) was recently completed.  With 535 tree species, the diversity of Oakland’s urban forest is greater than average for California.  With 14% native trees, Oakland’s urban forest is more native than average. There are 59 species on Oakland’s list of approved trees, of which only 4 are native to Oakland.  The most significant finding of Oakland’s tree inventory is that our urban forest is only 64% “stocked,” meaning that of existing tree wells, only 64% are currently planted with trees.  When trees die in Oakland, they aren’t being replaced.  I don’t doubt there is a will to plant trees in Oakland.  I assume it is a question of means in a city with more pressing needs than resources.

Ritter and his colleagues at Cal Poly have created a website called SelecTree to help Californians choose the right tree for the right site and conditions.  There are 1,500 tree species described on SelecTree, using 60 characteristics, such as drought tolerance.  SelecTree rates blue gum eucalyptus “medium” for drought tolerance, the same rating as native coast live oak and bay laurel.  Ritter clarified that drought tolerance on SelecTree is a measure of how much water the tree species uses.  Claims that eucalyptus uses more water than native trees is bogus, like most bad raps about eucalyptus.  

Ritter recommended specific tree species, based on their drought and heat tolerance.  He said that when diversifying our urban forests “we have to think about Australia” because it is the hottest, driest, flattest, and oldest place on the planet, which is another way of saying that tree species in Australia have survived terrible conditions that are comparable to the challenging conditions in urban environments.

Ritter recommended oak species that are native to Texas; eucalyptus and closely related tree species; and several tree species in the legume family, especially acacia.  In each case he mentioned the suitability of tree species based partly on the quality of its wood.  Apparently, I’m not the only person in California who is disturbed by huge piles of wood chips wherever trees have been destroyed.  Ritter also thinks we should be thinking about how we can use wood when trees are destroyed, rather than building potential bonfires.  

Obstacles to diverse urban forests in California

When Professor Ritter took questions from the audience, we learned that the main obstacle to a diverse urban forest in California, adapted to our climate conditions, is the myopic focus of native plant advocates:

Question:  “Are we introducing new pathogens to our natives by importing new species?”

Answer:  There are many laws and rules that restrict the importation of plants to prevent that from happening.  We also import only the seeds of plants, not grown plants.  The seeds are sterilized and they don’t carry the pathogens that may exist on grown plants in their native ranges.

Question:  “Do we know how quickly birds and insects adapt to new species?”

Answer:  “No we don’t, but who cares?  We are facing a climate emergency.   We have 50 years before life in our cities becomes hell.  We have a responsibility to protect the quality of life in our cities.  We should stop developing the wild, but cities are different.” 

Ritter anticipated a question that is often a concern of native plant advocates by saying we should not be concerned about “weediness,” AKA “invasiveness.”  He said, “That should be far down on our list of priorities of what to worry about.  We need to be primarily concerned about what tree species will grow in our changed climate.”

Rhetorical Question:  “But insects need native plants!

Answer:  Ritter instantly recognized the mantra of Doug Tallamy.  He replied that it is not well established that there are more insects living on native plants than on introduced plants.  He mentioned a single study that inventoried plant and animal species in eucalyptus compared to oak forests, presumably Dov Sax’s study which concluded:  “Species richness was nearly identical for understory plants, leaf-litter invertebrates, amphibians and birds; only rodents had significantly fewer species in eucalypt sites.  Species diversity patterns…were qualitatively identical to those for species richness, except for leaf-litter invertebrates, which were significantly more diverse in eucalypt sites during the spring.” 

Rhetorical Question:  “We are still dealing with a legacy of blue gum eucalyptus in the Bay Area.  Why should we repeat that mistake?”

Answer:  Ritter agreed that blue gum eucalyptus is “inappropriate” in many places where it was planted in the Bay Area, but we’re not planting blue gums.  There are 800 eucalyptus species and many are ideal for our conditions.  He said, “Why not plant eucalyptus?  It would be dumb not to plant suitable eucalyptus species just because it shares a name.”

Ritter added that, “Planting only natives just doesn’t work in San Francisco.  There would be no trees in Southern California because we don’t have very many native trees in California.”  The pre-settlement coast of California was virtually treeless in most places and that’s a fact. For example, a study of historic vegetation in Oakland, California reported that only 2% of pre-settlement Oakland was forested with trees. “Vegetation before urbanization in Oakland was dominated by grass, shrub, and marshlands that occupied approximately 98% of the area.” (1)

San Francisco in 1806 as depicted by artist with von Langsdoff expedition. Bancroft Library

Oakland as a case in point

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article about a guerilla tree-planter in Oakland who is planting native oak trees on public land, wherever he wants.  Oakland’s Director of Tree Services, David Moore, gently suggests that many of these tree plantings are ill-advised:  “‘There is a part of all of us that loves with our hearts the coast live oak tree because of its heritage, the symbolism of our city, and just the legacy that they have,’ Moore said. ‘But we have to diversify, and we are diversifying to other ones that are recommended to be more adaptable to climate change…The reality is that we have created a world that is not the native conditions of these plants,’ Moore said. ‘If we want trees to survive in these non-native conditions, we have to pick trees from around the world that can survive these conditions.’…Moore said oaks, while beautiful, are not the ideal tree for today’s hot, dry and cramped urban landscape. Without careful and costly maintenance, he said, oaks could destroy sidewalks, block light from street lamps and grow their branches into streets and walkways, creating hazards for motorists and pedestrians. The city still plants oaks, but mainly in parks rather than streets because that’s where they do better, Moore said…”

Stalemate

So, here we are.  We have a pressing need for a more diverse urban forest that is adapted to present and anticipated conditions, but we are paralyzed by the ideological commitment of native plant advocates who are demanding that we destroy our urban forest because it is predominantly non-native.  In a recent edition of Nature News, Jake Sigg said, “Hysterical tree planting is worse than a waste of time and resources…”

I am grateful to Professor Ritter for being bluntly frank with members of the arborist community who should know better.  Dare we hope they learned something from that presentation? 

I wish you Happy New Year.  Please join me in my hope for a more peaceful year.  Thank you for your readership.


(1) Nowak, David, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implications for urban forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture, 19(5): September 1993

When ideas remain unexamined and unchallenged, they intimidate ©

My last article of the year is a guest post by Marlene A. Condon, the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden:  Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information available HERE.)   You can read her blog In Defense of Nature.

Merry Christmas !

Million Trees

A birds-eye view of the University of Virginia (UHall seen in first photo) in Charlottesville, Virginia, makes clear that there are plenty of native trees to be found in developed areas.

The novelist E. L. Doctorow, in a 1989 conversation with PBS journalist Bill Moyers, said, “When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, they become mythological and very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate.”

He could have been speaking about the current environmental narrative regarding so-called invasive plants. Anyone who speaks out feels the wrath of the folks pushing their fictional environmental manifesto; I’ve lost jobs because of these people.

Most neo-scientists and -environmentalists, having arrived late to the party, have no clue as to why some alien plants exist in profusion along roadways, in former farm fields, and along trails in forests. The popular notion that native plants would otherwise be filling those areas is easily accepted by people who don’t possess knowledge of soil science, or who lack experience with gardening and/or closely observing the natural progression of plants in unmanaged, disturbed areas.

Knowing the prior history of the land is essential to understanding why particular nonnative plants fill some areas. Road building discomposes soil. Trail development/use and cows/farming-equipment moving over the land compact soil. Only “colonizer plants”—those capable of thriving under the altered and nutrient-poor conditions of these sites—can grow there.

Usually such areas, after many years, support a mix of native and nonnative pioneers, but sometimes alien plants outnumber the natives because they are best suited to the constraints imposed by the physical attributes of the site. Anyone (no Ph.D. required) can verify this statement by taking the time to observe the progression of plants in an area not revegetated by people. Doing so would make clear that alien plants do not “push out” native plants by “invading” and “taking over”, but rather, they fill disrupted areas where few native plants can successfully grow.

Yet, the desire by scientists and environmentalists is so great to get folks to remove supposedly invasive plants from the environment that we now have tall tales being spread. Herewith a sampling of some of the most egregiously untrue declarations regarding alien plants.

Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) wrote a New Hope [North Carolina] Audubon blog post called “Invasive Plants Are NOT for the Birds.”

  • He writes that, “The scientific literature on invasive plants and bird-dispersal is moderate but growing, and almost all of the research warns that this is a serious and multi-layered phenomenon. First off – birds either do not discriminate between native and invasive plants or often prefer invasives over natives. One reason for this is that a large proportion of invasives are high in carbohydrates, whereas the natives are often higher in protein and lipids/fats. Birds are consequently (pardon the analogy) choosing candy bars over cheeseburgers, which could affect bird nutrition, particularly during fall migration”.

The suggestion that birds are choosing “autumn olive berries [that] are sugary sweet treats, the junk food of the bird diet” is echoed by many people. This quote, from a letter to the editor of The Crozet Gazette by Susan A. Roth, William Hamersky, and Manuel T. Lerdau, Ph.D., is supposedly based upon a study published by the Wilson Journal of Ornithology in March, 2007, entitled “Fruit Quality and Consumption by Songbirds during Autumn Migration”.

Yet this study states that “Most common fruits on Block Island [where the study took place in Rhode Island] contained primarily carbohydrates…and little protein…and fat.” As the research paper’s authors were mainly speaking of native plants, this statement directly contradicts that of Mr. Randall that natives are often higher in proteins and fats than so-called invasives.

Additionally, the research paper’s authors state that “fruit selection by birds on Block Island was not simply related to differences in macronutrient composition between fruits…studies of wild and captive songbirds have shown that some species preferentially select high-fat fruits…or high-sugar fruits…”, which hardly implies that Autumn Olive fruits are a necessarily inferior food choice, as declared by Roth, et al.

A variety of foods exists to serve a variety of purposes. Turning sugar into something “bad” for birds comes as a result, perhaps, of this same application to human nutrition. But sugar is not in and of itself, “bad”. A runner in need of glucose who eats some jelly beans gets a quick burst of energy to continue exercising. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Sugar is only a problem if it’s eaten in excess, as might be done by children. But birds are not children; if they feel the need for protein and fat, they will search for insects and fruits that offer what they need.

  • Furthermore, Director Randall wrote that “Researchers have also shown that many invasive plants have fruits that persist longer than do native plant fruits into the fall and winter. The invasives are therefore available when our natives are not.”

In a world of disappearing habitat for wildlife because of human development, the fact that fruits on invasive plants are available when native-plant fruits are depleted should be seen as a positive rather than a negative.

Charlottesville, Virginia, residential area, has so many trees that you can’t see the roadways interspersed among them. In other words, insects and birds aren’t disappearing because alien plants have replaced native trees.

“Recent research published by Narango et al., in the October 22, 2018, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrates that native plants are best for birds. The research showed that yards landscaped with the usual garden center plants, which are mostly nonnative ornamentals, could not support a stable population of chickadees. Yards where native plants composed at least 70 percent of the plantings were able to do so. This is because native plants host more insects than non-natives and therefore provide the necessary high-protein food that birds need to feed their chicks.” [from a letter to the editor of The Crozet Gazette by Susan A. Roth, William Hamersky, and Manuel T. Lerdau, Ph.D.]

Narango’s study cannot be generalized to all birds, although many people have made the mistake of claiming it can. This study applies only to chickadees and certain other birds that inhabit forest because such species are dependent upon the native plants (trees) that comprise our forestland. In other words, if you want forest birds to reproduce in your yard, your yard must be forest. For a fuller explanation, please read “Chickadee Chicanery” at In Defense of Nature.

“These invasive species not only impact our forests, wetlands and streams, but also our economy, health and safety. They kill the trees that shade our homes and that our kids play hide-and-seek around. They increase the presence of other disease-spreading species like ticks. They diminish visibility along trails where safety is important”. [quote from an article from the Central Ohio Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management at a Nature Conservancy-sponsored website]

The only “forests” where you will see alien-plant species are those that are either managed improperly (overly thinned and thus allowing too much sunlight to reach the ground under the trees) or those that are actually “woods” in the process of succession (transforming from a field to a forest that has not yet reached maturity). “Invasive” plant species are sun-loving and therefore do not inhabit shady mature forests.

As for killing trees, if “they” refers to vines (a common complaint in the eastern U.S.) one must ask, why was the homeowner unable (or unwilling) to keep a vine from killing a tree in his yard that his “kids play hide-and-seek around”? However, if “they” refers to nonnative animals and/or diseases killing trees, that is a different situation altogether, which is not the point of this article. It’s unfortunate the writer did not make clear what “they” referred to. As far as I can tell, there’s no proof that “invasive” plants, in general—as stated above—increase the presence of organisms such as ticks. A study published in Environmental Entomology

purportedly shows that barberry-infested plots support more mice and thus ticks than plots in wooded areas with no barberry.

However, the “no barberry” plots were severely browsed by deer and thus “little understory vegetation was present.” In other words, these scientists compared two completely different habitats, which explains the greater number of ticks in the shrubby (Japanese Barberry) area that provided “questing habitat [for] blacklegged ticks [whereas] little other suitable vegetation exist[ed] in [the] severely browsed forests.”

“Questing habitat” refers to plants upon which ticks can wait at the appropriate height to grab onto an animal that comes by. Obviously, ticks are not going to be found in an area with little understory vegetation as they have nowhere to sit and wait for their quarry.

And we’re to believe “invasive” plants diminish visibility along trails, and native plants don’t? It sounds more like the folks who are supposed to be maintaining the trails have been derelict in their duties!

It’s clear that scientists and journalists are doing everything they can to assure that government and the general public view so-called invasive plants in a negative light. Yet, to my knowledge, no study condemning “invasive plants” exists that has the least bit of merit.

Marlene A. Condon


Addendum by Million Trees

Nativism turns a blind eye to climate change

“Reflexive demonization of alien species ignores the beautiful but complex truth that nature fights to find a way—and for a planet navigating the pressures of climate change and overpopulation, that just might be our saving grace.” – Marianne Willburn, Garden Rant

Margaret Renkl writes an opinion column for the New York Times that I usually enjoy because she frequently writes about nature, often based on observations of wildlife in her own garden.  She lives in her childhood home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Much of her garden was planted with non-native plants and trees decades ago by her deceased mother.  Yet, in a recent column, Ms. Renkl blames non-native plants for a variety of crimes against nature. 

  • She suggests that non-native trees are blooming earlier than native trees, which she says has “skewed our experience of spring.”  She is apparently unaware that spring does indeed arrive earlier than it has in the past because of climate change.  Warmer weather arrives earlier, triggering the blooms of spring, not vice versa.  Both native and non-native plants are blooming earlier than they did in the past. 
  • She suggests that gardens planted with non-native plants are “blooming wastelands where the flowers feed nobody at all,” yet her columns are usually filled with the wildlife that lives in her own garden, with introduced plant species.
  • Although she does not use pesticides in her own garden, she believes that her neighbors’ non-native gardens require them to use pesticides that kill wildlife.  She says, “The typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.” She does not seem to know that most herbicide is used to kill non-native plants, not native plants nor does she seem to realize the contradiction in her indictment of gardening with non-native plants.  If there are more insects living in native gardens than non-native gardens, why would more pesticide be needed in non-native gardens?  If people could learn to love the clover, dandelions, and English daisies in their lawns as much as I do, they would use less “weed killers” on their lawns.

Ms. Renkl’s misperceptions about non-native plants seem to be based on a mistaken belief in their origins.  She says, “Ambulatory and omnivorous, human beings are a migratory species. That’s not true for the vast majority of plants.”  In fact, plants are just as mobile as animals, including humans.  Plants are carried by birds, animals, wind, ocean currents, etc.  They come and go as the climate changes, as it has many times in the past 500 million years that plants have existed on Earth.  Plants now considered non-native existed here in the distant past, in a different climate.  Here are a few examples of such dispersals; most occurred before humans even existed:

The ability to migrate is essential to the survival of plant and animal species.  As the climate changes, this survival strategy is quickly becoming even more important.  When we demand that plants be restricted to their historical “native” ranges, we doom them to extinction because when the climate changes, the vegetation must change.

Where did Ms. Renkl learn these myths?

Ms. Renkl’s cites Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope as one of the sources of her mistaken beliefs.  Tallamy considers the existence of non-native plants the root of all evil in nature.  He calls them “ecological tumors.” He blames non-native plants for declining populations of both native plants and insects, and by extension to declining populations of birds that eat insects. 

In Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy says, “…we must not use climate change as an excuse to do nothing.  Most species of plants and animals are far more resilient to climate variability than we give them credit for.  Besides, increasing the number and biomass of the plantings in our yards and public spaces is one of our most accessible and convenient tools to fight climate change.”  The problem with Tallamy’s dogma is that it inspires the public and land managers to eradicate established landscapes that are not native based on Tallamy’s claims that non-natives are “crowding out” native species and depriving wildlife of food. All native plant “restorations” begin by eradicating non-native plants, usually with herbicides that retard new growth.  In other words, the native plant ideology is causing the loss of vegetation and therefore the loss of stored carbon and the reduced capacity for carbon sequestration in the future.  The native plant ideology is not increasing biodiversity, nor is it “fighting climate change.”  It is more destructive than constructive. 

I’m not looking for “an excuse to do nothing.”  On the contrary, I believe every effort must be made to stop or at least slow down the inexorable advance of climate change.  The most basic effort we can make is to stop destroying functional vegetation, especially trees.  Then, there is a lengthy list of what we should be doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is another, equally important topic. 

Native plant advocates consider climate change irrelevant because they believe the existence of non-native plants is the sole culprit of all problems in the environment.  They see every environmental issue through the narrow lens of their dogma.  This comment on an article about the value of non-native plants by Marlene Condon published in [Chesapeake] Bay Journal is an example of such a misinterpretation of an environmental issue:

“English ivy is an evergreen, non-native, invasive groundcover that has demolished undisturbed natural areas…In salmon country that’s the difference between clean, cold streams and warmer streams filled with sediment.”

Eradicating ivy on stream banks is likely to produce more sediment because it will take some time for replacement vegetation to cover the ground, especially if herbicides are used to eradicate the ivy. Water is warmer in streams because of climate change and because there is less water due to water diversion and droughts. There are many other reasons for declining populations of salmon, particularly dams that prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.

Treat the cause, not the symptom

The native plant ideology ignores the underlying causes of changing ecosystems. Most changes are caused by the activities of humans, such as agriculture, development, water diversion, and pesticides.  Climate change is the underlying cause of some changes in nature and it will steadily become a more important factor.  Eradicating non-native plants will not reverse any of those changes nor will it prevent changes in the climate.    


  1. Alan de Queiroz, “The resurrection of oceanic dispersal in historical biogeography,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20 No. 2, February 2005

Photo credit for featured photo: Garden Rant, Marianne Willburn

Computer models predict the future? Garbage in, garbage out

Computer modeling is an increasingly popular tool used in ecological studies.  The rapidly changing climate is putting pressure on scientists to predict the trajectory of the change and the impacts those changes will have on the environment.  However, a computer model is only as predictive as the assumptions used to build it.  In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.”

That sets the stage for a study published in 2018 that predicted that “grassland may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests in California.”(1) The study was quickly adopted by native plant advocates as a weapon in their battle to destroy non-native trees in favor of grassland they prefer. (2) They prefer grassland because it was the pre-settlement coastal landscape.  They don’t acknowledge that burning by Native Americans and grazing by native ungulates were the primary reasons why grassland did not succeed to shrubs and forests prior to settlement. Pre-settlement grassland was as much a human creation as any modern landscape.

Source: US EPA, 2018

Most carbon storage is below ground, in roots and soil.  That is true of both grassland and forests. If the forest burns, the carbon it has stored in soil remains, just as the below ground carbon sink of grassland remains. 

The study (1) that claims grassland may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests reaches its erroneous conclusion by comparing below ground carbon storage in grassland with above ground carbon storage in forests. It’s a classic case of inappropriately comparing apples with oranges to the disadvantage of forests.  It seemed such an unlikely comparison that I asked the study’s authors to confirm they had compared below ground carbon storage in grassland with above ground carbon storage in forests.  They confirmed that they did, indeed, make that inappropriate comparison.

The study also bolsters its mistaken conclusions by erroneously claiming that forests are more likely to burn than grasses:

“The fire resistance for grasses is 0.5 while that of trees range from 0.1−0.3, making grasses more resistant to wildfires than trees, which is roughly consistent with field-observations since in the event of a wildfire, when compared to trees, a smaller fraction of the biomass of grass is damaged.” (1)

However, the study cited as the source of this statement (3) says exactly the opposite:

“The fraction of individuals killed depends upon the prescribed PFT fire resistance, which represents the PFT survivorship during a fire (see Table 1). In the fire model, grasses and litter are fully consumed.” (3)

Table 1 PFT parameter values for fire resistance
PFTFire Resistance (%)
Woody
Tropical broad-leaved evergreen12.0
Tropical broad-leaved raingreen50.0
Temperate needle-leaved evergreen12.0
Temperate broad-leaved evergreen50.0
Temperate broad-leaved summergreen12.0
Boreal needle-leaved evergreen12.0
Boreal summergreen12.0
Grasses
C3 grass100.0
C4 grass100.0

Table 1 is consistent with this statement in the abstract of the cited study:  “Estimated litter moisture is the main driver of day‐to‐day fire probability.”  (3) Forests retain more moisture in the soil and leaf litter because of the shade provided by the tree canopy.  I wrote to the study author again, asking “where is the source of your statement that grasses are more fire resistant than trees?”  He did not reply.

If a study doesn’t seem to make sense, or it contradicts other sources of information, it is worthwhile to look under the hood.  What is driving the model?  Is it fueled by hot air?  Is it serving an activist agenda? Are cited studies accurately quoted? 

Some truth emerges from the model’s black box

Despite the erroneous assumptions of the computer model used by this study, there is some truth in the conclusions it reaches.  Vegetation type conversions are occurring now and they will continue as the climate continues to change because when the climate changes, the vegetation changes. We are presently witnessing the transition of native conifers at high altitudes to lower altitude hardwood trees. Although these changes will occur gradually and there will be many intermediary transitions, the fact is that grassland is more likely to survive than forests in a warmer, drier climate in the long run. 

The Guardian has published a comprehensive report about the loss of forests all over the world.  In the Rocky Mountains, one-third of places where trees burned 20 years ago are now occupied by shrubs and flowers.  About 15% of forests in the Rocky Mountains are not expected to grow back if killed by fire because the climate is no longer suitable for them.  About half of existing forests in Alberta, Canada are expected to vanish by 2100.  The “megadrought” in south-western US is expected to convert 30% of forests to shrubland or another type of ecosystem.

In the short run, the loss of forests can be mitigated by reforestation with tree species that are better adapted to a warmer, drier climate.  The study (1) acknowledges the potential for mitigation to preserve forest ecosystems:  Factors such as species traits, biodiversity, rapid evolution, and human management intervention could alter our model-based findings from the projections provided here. Consequently, our results indicate the potential direction of change as opposed to predictions that consider the full ensemble of ecological, physiological and management factors that can alter pathways and responses of ecosystems to climate change.”

From the standpoint of carbon storage, it is not good news that grassland is likely to inherit hot, dry lands previously occupied by forests.  Forests and wetlands store more carbon than grasslands, as the above chart in a USDA publication about carbon storage shows.  Sustaining below ground carbon sinks will depend on carbon sequestration by above-ground plants and trees.  Because above-ground carbon sequestration is primarily dependent upon the biomass, forests will always do a better job than grassland in the long run.  In the short-run, grassland will grow back more quickly than forests, but it will never achieve comparable biomass. 

Forests are presently absorbing about one-quarter of all human carbon emissions annually. Forests make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions, but planting trees is not a panacea as long we continue to burn fossil fuels to generate energy. The loss of carbon-sequestering capabilities of forests will exacerbate climate change in the long-run.  It’s one of many dreaded feedback loops that are reaching tipping points:  the impacts of climate change are destroying the mechanisms that mitigate climate change. 

The study (1) acknowledges that by the end of the 21st Century, under current climate conditions (warming limited to 0.3⁰ – 1.7⁰ Centigrade) forests will have removed 5 times more net carbon (carbon storage minus carbon loss) per hectare from the atmosphere than grassland in California.  See Table 1 in the study (1).  Thus, the study agrees that forests store more carbon than grassland.

From the standpoint of wildlife, it is not good news that grassland is likely to replace forests in a warmer climate. The insects, birds, and animals that live in the forest will lose their habitat. Forests are home to over 80% of terrestrial species.  We will lose our shade in a warming climate and our windbreak. 

Not an argument for destroying forests

This study (1) is unfortunately being used by the native plant movement to advocate for the preemptive destruction of healthy urban forests that are not more likely than native forests to burn in wildfires.  Virtually all wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. There is no advantage to destroying healthy forests that are expected to live for another 100-200 years.  We don’t amputate our limbs to avoid breaking them.  Nor should we destroy our forests before they die.

(1)“Grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in California,” Pawlok Dass, Benjamin Z Houlton, Yingping Wang and David Warlind, 10 July 2018, Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 7 

(2) “Importance of Grasslands for Carbon Storage,” Yerba Buena Chapter of California Native Plant Council, Quarterly Newsletter, March 2021, page 6. 

(3) “The role of fire disturbance for global vegetation dynamics: coupling fire into a dynamic global vegetation model,” Thonicke K, Venevsky S, Sitch S and Cramer W 2001,  Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr.10 661–77

Nobody cares where a pretty wildflower is from

The feel-good ending of the local news broadcast on Channel 7 (ABC) on February 17, 2021, featured this video of a huge field of oxalis (Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae) blooming on the roadside of Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County.  People were stopping along the road to admire the bright yellow blooms of spring and photograph them.  No one said anything about where the plant “belongs,” and no bad words were spoken about this useful plant that native plant advocates love to hate.

Click on the picture to activate the video

Despite its beauty and utility, oxalis is sprayed with one of the most toxic herbicides on the market in public parks and open spaces in the Bay Area.  San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department has been spraying oxalis in several public parks for over 15 years.  San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) published a brilliant article about this pointless and destructive crusade that was republished by Conservation Sense and Nonsense in 2015.  That article about the many benefits of oxalis is one of the most popular articles on this blog; it has been viewed by over 10,000 readers and many more on the SFFA website.  We invite you to visit it and we summarize it briefly here:

  • Oxalis blooms briefly in early spring and dies back before summer begins, leaving the ground to other plants. It does not kill other plants, rather it co-exists briefly during its annual bloom.
  • Oxalis is very useful to pollinators and its tuberous roots (bulbils) are eaten by ground dwelling animals such as gophers.
  • Oxalis is called sour-grass because of its pleasant-tasting tang and it is often eaten by children.
  • Triclopyr is the active ingredient in the herbicide that is used on oxalis during its blooming season. It damages the soil by killing beneficial fungi and microbes, and it is toxic to many animals.

The annual poisoning of oxalis on Mount Davidson was recently videotaped by Ron Proctor and published by the San Francisco Forest Alliance. A crew of 5 men was hired to do the deed.  Ironically, this spraying of oxalis on Mount Davidson in San Francisco was taking place at the same time that tourists were admiring oxalis in a neighboring county.

Click on picture to activate the video.

Oxalis is not an isolated example of a non-native plant that is admired by the public, but hated by native plant advocates and public land managers who do their bidding.  As a member of the Sierra Club, I receive emails alerting me to opportunities to advocate for the protection of the environment.  The most recent email featured a picture of a yellow wildflower in the foreground of a photograph of a Bay Area landscape:

The yellow wildflower in the foreground is Black Mustard (Brassica nigra).  I responded to the Sierra Club’s email:

“The plant in the foreground of your photograph appears to be Brassica nigra:  ‘Brassica nigra, or black mustard, is an annual plant cultivated for its black or dark brown seeds, which are commonly used as a spice. It is native to tropical regions of North Africa, temperate regions of Europe, and parts of Asia.’ Wikipedia

“I hope the use of this photo in this Sierra Club email to its members means that the Sierra Club is finally prepared to accept the reality of the presence of non-native plants in our public parks and open spaces.  The Sierra Club’s support for unnecessary and destructive eradication projects has been regrettable, particularly because they require the use of harmful herbicides.  I hope this email is an indication that the Sierra Club is finally ready to reconsider this futile crusade.”

I received this disappointing reply from the Sierra Club:  The staffer who puts together our newsletter isn’t a plant buff and wouldn’t have known the difference. But I am a plant buff and review the newsletter and know the difference between a mustard and a native plant. I somehow just overlooked that photo entirely. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll be more careful in my review of the newsletter in the future (look more carefully at the photos). And we’ll change the online version.”

The beauty and resilience of weeds

Dandelion by Mona Caron. Click on the picture to see more murals by Mona Caron.  Mona is a Swiss artist who became a muralist in her adoptive hometown San Francisco, California.  She is best known for her multi-story murals celebrating the rebellious resilience of weeds.

 The Bottom Line

The general public doesn’t care where plants came from.  The public recognizes and values beauty wherever it is found.  Unfortunately, our public lands are in the death grip of the native plant movement and environmental organizations that should be objecting to the use of herbicides in our public parks and not promoting that destructive agenda.  The crusade against non-native plants has been responsible for spraying our public lands with dangerous pesticides for over 20 years.  They have little to show for their toxic crusade, perhaps because the herbicides damage the soil and make the survival of native plants even less likely.


The featured photo at the top of this article was taken in Glen Canyon, another public park in San Francisco where oxalis has been sprayed annually for many years.  The copyright photo of a coyote in a field of oxalis was taken by Janet Kessler and is shown with her permission.

Fact vs. Fiction: The real threats to native plants in California

The enduring fiction of the native plant movement is that the existence of non-native plants threatens the existence of native plants by “crowding out” native plants.  If that were true, we should expect to see some evidence of such a causal relationship after 250 years of steadily increasing numbers of non-native plant species.  But we don’t. 

Marcel Rejmanek (UC Davis) is the author of the most recent report on plant extinctions in California, published in 2017.  At that time there were 13 plant species and 17 sub-species native to California known to be globally extinct and another 30 species and sub-species extirpated in California but still found in other states.  Over half the globally extinct taxa were reported as extinct over 100 years ago.  Although grassland in California had been converted to Mediterranean annual grasses by grazing domesticated animals decades before then, most of the plants now designated as “invasive” in California were not widespread over 100 years ago.

Most of the globally extinct plant species had very small ranges and small populations.  The smaller the population, the greater the chances of extinction.  Most of the globally extinct plants were originally present in lowlands where most of the human population and habitat destruction are concentrated. Although there are many rare plants at higher altitudes, few are extinct.  Plants limited to special habitats, like wetlands, seem to be more vulnerable to extinction. The primary drivers of plant extinction in California are agriculture, urbanization and development in general.

Non-native plants are the innocent bystanders to disturbance

“Invasive species” are mentioned only once in the inventory of extinct plants published by California Native Plant Society and only in combination with several other factors. However, the identity of this “invasive species” is not clear.  Rejmanek suggests that the “invasive species” rating refers to animal “invasions” by predators and grazers.  He says, “Indeed, one needs quite a bit of imagination to predict that any native plant species may be driven to extinction by invasive plants per se.” (1)

Although climate change is not cited as the cause of any of the known plant extinctions in California, Rejmanek predicts that climate change is likely to be a factor in the future, not only because of the impact of drought and higher temperatures, but also because non-native plants may be better adapted to changed conditions.

There are over 1,000 naturalized non-native plant species in California.  Their presence is associated with human disturbance.  Naturalized non-native plants are a symptom of disturbance, not the cause.  The impact of non-native plants on native plants cannot be separated from other factors that created the conditions for success of non-native plants.

Specialized insects are exaggerated

Another popular fiction among native plant advocates who love to hate non-native plants is that specialized insects—especially pollinators—require specific native plant species. Again, the record of plant extinctions in California does not support that myth:  “…there is no indication that the loss of pollinators was an important factor in plant species extinctions in California. [For example, one of the native plant species extirpated in California] has many documented non‐specialized pollinators. There does not seem to be any particular dispersal mode associated with presumably extinct plants in California.” (1)

Putting plant extinctions into context

Mediterranean Climates are found in coastal temperate zones. Mediterranean climates are characterized by hot dry summers and mild wet winters.

Setting sub-species aside, there are 5,280 identified native plant species in California and 28 known extinctions of native plant species, including 15 plant species known to still exist in other states.  Only .53% of California native plants are known to be extinct in California, about one-half of one-percent.  Does that seem like a lot?  Rejmanek compared the extinction rate in California with other Mediterranean climates.  The extinction rate of native plants in California is similar to those in the European Mediterranean Basin, South Africa, and Australia, but a little greater than the rate in Chile, where there are fewer endemic plants that exist only in Chile.  Endemism is associated with small native ranges and small populations that are more vulnerable to extinction.

Why are there many endemic plants in California?

About 40% of native plant species in the California Floristic Province are endemic, found only in California and in most cases only in small areas within California, including our off-shore islands.  Their small populations in isolated geographic areas, sometimes within unique ecosystems, such as alkaline sinks, make them particularly vulnerable to extinction.

The evolutionary history of endemic plant species explains why there are so many in California.  Endemic plants are close relatives to plants that exist elsewhere and are sometimes plentiful where they came from.  For example manzanita is a genus of chaparral shrub that is plentiful in California, but there are also many rare endemic manzanita species that occur only in small areas and small populations.  There are several endangered manzanita species in the Bay Area (pallid, Raven’s, Franciscan).

Franciscan manzanita is one of 2 endangered manzanita species in San Francisco. There is one individual plant left of each of these two manzanita species. There are many endemic plants and insects in San Francisco and several are now extinct. San Francisco has a complex, diverse geology and topography and it is surrounded on 3 sides by water, creating many small, isolated microclimates in which many endemics have evolved.

The geography of California explains why the evolution of a plant species diverged from its plentiful ancestors to become an endemic species in a small geographic area.  Plants move around in a wide variety of ways, most natural, without the aid of humans.  Their seeds are dispersed by animals and birds that eat them or inadvertently carry them to another location.  Sometimes their seeds are carried on the wind or brought to islands by storms and currents.

When a plant arrives in a new location that is isolated from its original home and therefore cannot mate with its relatives, it begins its own, independent evolutionary history.  Each successive generation is reacting to its new environment, rewarding its fitness with its new home with a successful new generation.  Each generation rolls the genetic dice, its genome drifting away from its ancestors in a random way.  Occasionally a mutation will occur that alters the evolutionary trajectory.  Eventually, the plant in its new home is sufficiently genetically distinct that taxonomists are ready to call it a separate species.  Naming a new species is a judgment call, often questioned by some taxonomists, called “lumpers” as opposed to the “splitters” who are ready to name it a new species.

The factors that result in endemic species are many, but broadly speaking they are mobility and, ironically, isolation.  California is one of the most geographically diverse states in the country, with corridors for mobility, but many barriers that create isolation.  Gordon Leppig describes California’s geographic diversity in Beauty and the Beast:  California Wildflowers and Climate Change, published by California Native Plant Society:  “The state’s natural wonders include five deserts, the highest and lowest points in the continental United States, the third-longest state coastline (about one thousand miles), the most national parks (nine), the most federally designated wilderness areas (more than 140), the highest percentage of wilderness in the contiguous United States (14%), the most diverse conifer assemblage outside the Himalayas, the most federally listed species….”  The multitude of different ecosystems with unique microclimates produces one of the most diverse floras in the world.

Click on the picture to watch the movement of tectonic plates over one billion years. Watch California slowly emerge as the jigsaw puzzle takes shape. California is the edge of two tectonic plates that collide and grind past one another perpetually, uplifting and dropping the land into fractured geomorphic pieces.

Human activities penetrate the barriers that created genetic isolation in the past.  Our roads become corridors for the biological exchange that threatens small, isolated pockets of rare plants.  Trade and travel has ended the isolation of off-shore islands.  Our roads and dams also create new barriers for mobility.  In other words, we are altering pre-settlement corridors and creating new ones.  We should expect consequences for our ecosystems for the changes we have made.

Given the number of rare and endemic plants in California and the changes in the environment required to accommodate nearly 40 million human Californians, it seems that extinction of less than one-half of one percent of native plants is a surprisingly small loss. 


(1) Marcel Rejmanek, “Vascular plant extinctions in California: A critical assessment,” Diversity and Distributions, Journal of Conservation Biogeography, 2017