These days we hear a lot about how invasive plants are destroying our environment. But how true is this? What is a native plant? Who defines these things? What is a non-native? Who defines these things? What help does defining a planets inhabitants by their nativeness or non-nativeness give us? These are questions, that while maybe make some uncomfortable, are very important questions to be asking in these times.
If we look to Wikipedia we get this definition: An invasive species is a plant, fungus, or animal species that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and which has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health. Let's take a look at some of the built in assumptions in the definition.
First of all, the definition says "not native to a specific location (an introduced species)". Well, what does not native even mean? What assumptions can we make at this point about what is being said in this statement without being said explicitly? First of all, this assumes that we know without a shadow of a doubt that this plant, fungus or animal is in fact a non-native, that it indeed never was here at one point in the past either, and it explicitly assumes that it will forever be a non-native. Why is this bad you may ask? Because this assumption has been disproved on multiple occasions.
Lets start with the horse, Equus ferus caballus(not a plant, I am well aware). For the longest time it was assumed that horses were brought here by Europeans and that they were an invasive species capable of increasing their numbers in the wild. This is in fact all false. The modern domesticated horse Equus ferus caballus is the subspecies of its wild ancestor Equus ferus. It is without doubt that at the time of European arrival on the shores of the Americas that there were no horses. But as it turns out, our assumptions about nativeness were incorrect. As it turns out the wild progenitor of our modern horses did all of its evolution here in the Americas, then made their way over the Bering Land bridge, and at some point became extinct in the Americas, whether due to over hunting or due to little available food is not known at this point. Then, as if held deep in the memory of their DNA, when the horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Europeans, they took to the land as if they had never been gone. Immediately living as if "native". This is just one example of us being proven incorrect about our assumptions of nativeness. There are many other such examples, and if you are interested in furthering your research into this topic, I highly suggest going here or reading the book "Where do camels belong?" by Ken Thompson.
Now lets look at some of the other built in assumptions in the above definition: "has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy, or human health." The very first thing I notice is the assumption that if an invasive species harms the human economy then it is considered a bad thing. That assumption leads directly to its previous assumption; that human capitalism is a good thing. Now, I will not go into an anti-capitalist rant, but I will say that, for humanity, capitalism is a very new concept in the timeline of our history on Earth. Not all humans, and I would venture to say, most if not all tribal people, would argue that capitalism is in fact a detriment to our environment. So our inherent assumptions about the good of our economy necessarily lead us to the belief that anything that causes harm to it is a bad thing. But is this the case for the rest of the worlds species?
Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is a spreader for sure, it is "native" to Eurasia and it forms pretty formidable thickets. Sounds bad right? Well, as is often the case, its not all black and white. Birds, absolutely love Buckthorn. Birds can be seen in GIANT numbers descending upon Buckthorn thickets when the berries are ripe, eating to their little hearts content. It is often stated that this practice causes diarrhea, but this amounts to yet more propaganda in trying to make us believe that this plant is bad. Go here to read why this is a myth.
Yes, Buckthorn is poisonous to humans, yes it spreads and forms thickets. Does that mean that it is bad? Methinks not, and I will tell you why. There is this little thing called the Web of Life, and in this little tiny Web of Life there are things that only other species can make use of. Our ancestors knew this, and yet they never formed task forces to en masse remove vegetation from the landscape. They accepted it as part of the Web of Life because they knew that if it was good for the animals then by definition it is good for us too, for we too are part of the web of life. Buckthorn berries feed the birds, birds feed other animals, other animals use the Buckthorn thickets for shelter, humans hunt animals that use this area for shelter, and humans can incorporate Buckthorn into woven fences, because the wood is reasonably straight most of the time and pretty strong.
Whether or not something is good for the human economy is a ridiculous reason for whether or not we consider a plant to be a bad thing. English Ivy or Hedera helix in Sciencese, is often thought of as a very nasty invader that completely envelops trees and homes. And it is, but here is an interesting fact, English Ivy is incredible, almost unsurpassed, in its air cleaning abilities. It can take Benzene out of the air, and it produces an amazing amount of oxygen. And to put a cherry on top, the vines can be woven into very beautiful and sturdy baskets. We need to learn how to view our natural areas acknowledging the Web of Life, and not human capitalism.
The fight against invasive plants is almost completely useless, and a huge waste of taxpayer money (this is discussed in "Where do Camels Belong"). Not to mention it often involves poisoning the very land that some organizations claim to be protecting? Can anyone inform me how putting a toxic substance on the land that will remain in the soil for many years, poisoning any resulting plant growth, is a benefit to the land? I understand people feeling the need to fight something they perceive to be evil, but all invasive plants are not evil, and we will make no progress with this same human-centric thinking that has brought us to this place we are in now. Perhaps instead of villainizing Garlic Mustard we should organize community potlucks that center around dishes made with this delicious and health promoting plant. Perhaps then its presence might decrease simply by people using it more often.
All I ask is that if you take away one thing from this blog, that it be to look at the world through new eyes, eyes that see what benefits all of creation and not just humans.