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August 01, 2014
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Plants behaving badly; Love that ‘ornamental’ plant? Not so fast, please

Autumn olive is a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 20 feet tall. The leaves have a very distinct, silvery covering on their underside.
Contributed photos

By Linda Drollinger

NARROWSBURG, NY — Non-native plants sometimes behave badly; when they do, it’s no laughing matter. Bad behavior by non-native plants can include insensitivity to the needs of surrounding native plants and animals (as evidenced by blooming earlier and later than its neighbors and by creeping vines that deprive competitors of sunlight), blind ambition (deep, widespread root systems and/or extensive stem and vine systems that crowd out and strangulate plant competitors), and blatant aggression toward all other living entities (bleeding water and nutrients from soil and emitting toxins that compromise or kill plants, animals and even humans). Whatever their modus operandi, the ultimate result is habitat dominance at the expense of other plant and animal species. These villains are known collectively as invasive plant species.

The federal government defines invasive species (both plant and animal varieties) as “a non-native species whose introduction does, or is likely to, cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human, animal or plant health.” [Executive Order 13112, 1999] These species have the ability to displace or eradicate native species, to alter fire regimes, to damage infrastructure and to threaten human livelihoods. Whenever any invasive species is allowed to proliferate unchecked, the consequences are life threatening. Here’s why: The invader reduces ecosystem biodiversity, which in turn, wreaks havoc with food chains and food webs. An illustration would be any invasive plant that chokes out the grasses and low bushes on which small herbivores (rabbits, groundhogs) feed. As small herbivores are displaced because their food sources have dried up, carnivores that feed on them (owls, eagles, foxes, bears and wolves) also are at risk because their food sources are not available. How immediate is this problem? Before salt cedar (an invasive tree known for extracting minerals and water from the soil) began its spread in the mid-20th century, 100 acres of land could support 150 species of wildlife. After salt cedar’s unchecked spread, the same acreage could support four species only.

Origins