Good Plant, Bad Plant?

On the coldest day of the season—so far—I took a walk through our patch of community forest here in Whispering Woods. Unlike some other suburban developments whose developers seem to choose names based on what they’re destroying, at least here, there are some woods left for the wind to whisper through, two to three acres by my estimation.


I ventured off the path to pick up some trash and found myself attracted to a couple of trees vined about with English ivy and began to pull the ivy down. What is it in me, I wondered, that wants to “rescue” these trees from the ivy? I stopped as I began to more carefully consider the question, continued on with looking for trash and figured I’d come back another day.


And so I did, on the most unseasonably warm day of the season—so far. I thought, Oh, I’ll leave most of the ivy, I’ll just pull down what’s practically wrapped around a large, evidently old—at least 80 years—tulip poplar. But when I got to the tree and put on my garden gloves and pulled a small set of clippers from my pocket, I couldn’t. I leaned into the tree and asked: What’s needed here?


Leave it alone. Thank you for your concern, but leave it. Come back and visit anytime, but no need to bring those clippers. I also thought I heard the tree say the vine was helping it.


I continued on and came to a beech, much younger than the tulip poplar, but with two strands of ivy wending their way up opposite sides.


Again, I leaned in and just listened. Again: Leave them. Better them than the carvings, which they may help to discourage. Carvings were in the side of the beech adjacent to the path.


These feelings of wanting to rescue are not new to me. I spent many a day at a place in West Virginia I used to co-tend going after multiflora rose along a stream and never really questioning its purpose—all in the name of ridding the landscape of “invasives.”


But are invasives really as bad as we make them out to be?


I think the answer is, We don’t know enough to know.


To use the language of invasion biology, we humans may be the biggest invasive species there is. But aside from that, we are certainly one of the biggest vectors in transferring different species around the globe.


There’s also this question: What is “native”? What, exactly, does that mean?


I can think of some hardy species that followed Europeans to North America—species that, today, we (gardeners and herbalists) appreciate: earthworms, dandelions, plantain.


About that ivy: Acupuncturist and herbalist Timothy Lee Scott in Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives mentions several scientific investigations for medicinal uses of ivy, including studies of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antimicrobial properties.


But maybe more important than these, it’s critical that we look at so-called invasives—how about if we call them migrants?—in terms of their importance in the settings in which they’ve entered. Ivy has been shown to assist in removing air pollutants such as benzene, toluene and PCBs—indoors and outdoors.


Of course, I can think of some places where work is and should be done to discern what species truly are harmful—places we may want to work toward keeping “intact”…intact in relation to what we’ve known them to be like: the Everglades come to mind as well as Turkey Run Park along the G.W. Parkway that National Park Service volunteers help to keep clear of migrants. It’s a great place to look for spring ephemerals. Do we want to see them outcompeted by migrants?


The point, I think, is that we need to proceed with caution. Plants can and do move of their own accord. As we also say in herbal circles, sometimes they go where they’re needed—by people who live there, by other plants and animals, by the land itself. We need to take care that in our eagerness to practice restoration ecology we allow the plants to do what they need to do. After all, we are only here for a time—we can seldom access the long view needed to make wise decisions in such matters.

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