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Aliens in our woods


I saw some things I shouldn't have this Christmas in what was mostly a beautiful place. (In part, I say mostly because the state park I was hiking through sits next to an enormous, coal-fired power plant, but that's another story altogether. . .) No, although the area's steep gorges are chockablock with cedar trees, squirrels, and black-capped chickadees, they're hopping with non-native plant species like Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose, too. That's a big problem since cultivated, exotic plants disrupt local ecosystems by crowding out much of the native flora which feeds and shelters insects, birds, and other creatures.

So just how did these alien invaders find sure footing in our forests? We put them there. Sort of. Both Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose were widely planted by city and state governments to help control erosion along embankments and highways, and, unfortunately, the plants have fared a little too well. Gardeners have also long included them -- and countless other exotics -- in their landscapes. (Full disclosure: I have yet to rip out the gargantuan, 40-year-old multiflora rose hedge which frames my little homestead. And, yes, I've been known to grouse about the weed police, but I think I'm coming around to their point of view.)

As it turns out, many other landscaping escapees have found their way into the woods, but they aren't always easy to identify while dormant. Had I been hiking in summer, for instance, I'd likely have noticed large stands of garlic mustard, maybe some money plant, lemon balm, and the occasional butterfly bush. (That last one, I admit, I'd rather never part with, because I value it highly for its ability to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and my honey bees. As such, not only do I plant it, I still propagate it as well.) English ivy, privet, vinca, foxglove, and crown vetch are some of the other commonly used botanical offenders still sold at garden centers, nurseries, and via mail order outfits. Useful plants, all of them, but I suppose the time has come to try some good alternatives to them instead.