The Silent Invasion
Porterbrook Native Plants
A silent invasion is taking place in our precious forest, meadows, and wetlands. Little by little, invasive plants are out-competing native plants as they vie for nutrients to survive. The list of invasive species is growing at an exponential rate. These invasive plants arrive in cargo containers from abroad either as seeds, roots, or entire plants. They also are brought into this country intentionally by nurseries who sell them to unsuspecting gardeners who are delighted by the flowers and foliage, but are completely unaware of the ecological havoc these plants can cause in our native ecosystems. Attempts to eradicate these unwelcome introductions will always be hampered until the public is made aware of the damage caused by them.
One solution is to begin using native plants as substitutes for these invasive species. Native plants are not only extremely ornamental, they are also well-adapted to the growing conditions in which they will be placed, requiring little or no irrigation, needing no fertilization, and requiring no insecticides. The use of native plants lessens the destruction of fragile ecosystems that are inundated with chemicals as the result of too much irrigation and use of pesticides and insecticides.
The intentional and accidental introduction of alien species of plants is one of the dire threats to the natural resources of southern Ohio and West Virginia. One need only drive along the West Virginia turnpike and look at the rapid spread of Kudzu vines, Paulownia trees, and the ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis to see how devastating these species can be. Invasive species are even more prevalent within the confines of our states forests and parks. Microstegia vimineum (Stiltgrass) is literally choking out hundreds of species of native wildflowers and grasses. Stiltgrass is an annual grass that produces thousands of seeds per plant that attach themselves to any object that passes through them. ATVs are one of the main culprits. As they ride along trails covered with Stiltgrass, their tires spread the seeds wherever the ATVs venture. All too often, the riders stray off the trails and traverse the sides of mountains or along gullies and cuts dissecting the slopes. Within a matter of weeks, there are green strips present where the tires have dispersed the seeds. Within three years, Stiltgrass can replace all of the native vegetation on the forest floor.
Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is not only invasive but also poisonous to humans. There have been instances where individuals who were sawing these trees became seriously ill from the sap in the sawdust. Another pernicious invasive plant that is a public health hazard is Heracleum manztegassianum (Giant Hogweed). Originally from Asia and introduced as an ornamental plant, Giant Hogweed’s clear, watery sap has toxins that cause photo dermatitis. Skin contact followed by exposure to sunlight produces painful, burning blisters that can develop into purplish or blackened scars.
Far too many other species have silently invaded our forests, meadows, and waterways. A statewide effort is necessary to prevent and control the continued spread and introduction of these alien species. Efforts are already underway by both federal and state agencies to eradicate specific invasive species. It will prove to be a fruitless effort, however, if these same non-native species continue to grow in adjacent private lands and remain a source of seeds that will ultimately spread back onto public land. The public, as well as federal and state agencies, must be made aware of the ecological catastrophe that is taking place throughout the Ohio Valley because of non-native invasive plants.
Economic development is also taking its toll on native plants. In the past, special interest groups and private companies have ravaged the landscape through widespread timber operations, coal mining, construction of chemical and power plants, highway construction, new homes, and shopping malls. All of these economic ventures have come at the expense of the native flora and fauna. Each year, the number of threatened and endangered species grows at an alarming rate. Sadly, the loss of these plant and animal communities does not often reach the public’s attention until long after the destruction has occurred. In fairness, what would the Ohio Valley be without its magnificent mountains, rivers, and streams? The answer will become evident all too soon.
What can be done to change how the natural resources of our region are protected and conserved for future generations to enjoy? The answer lies in educating the public and state officials about diverse and fragile these resources are. Many of our natural resources are finite. Once they have been exhausted or exterminated, they cannot be replaced. Other resources may be replenished, but not necessarily in our lifetimes. State officials need to tout these diverse and natural resources as tourist attractions. We have far more to offer than ski resorts and white water rafting. More and more of our natural areas must be set aside and protected. Once this is accomplished, there would be an opportunity for botanical excursions for tourists as well as locals. The “Rails to Trails” is an excellent example of this process.
For anyone interested in learning more about invasive species and how to control them on their property, the Meigs County Extension Office in Pomeroy, Ohio is offering a day-long conference on March 27, 2008. Registration information is available at www.meigs.osu.edu , email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
In the months to come, I hope to explore many aspects of native plants in the Ohio Valley. How did the landscape look prior to the arrival of the first settlers? Where did prairies exist in our region? How do you propagate seeds of native plants? What are the best ways to incorporate native plants into your landscape? What are the threatened and endangered species? Where can you go to see these rare plants? It will be an exciting journey. Please join me for the ride.
This article was first published by the Marietta Register