THE PARADOX OF INVASIVE PLANTS
Every plant is a teacher-
But as in every crowd,
There are always
A few loudmouths.
Dale Pendell, Living with Barbarians
Many years ago, my wife imparted the idea to me that there is no such thing as a weed, and from then on I’ve tried to follow the assertion of Ralph Waldo Emerson that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” As a trained, practicing herbalist, I recognized these prolific plants as valuable healing remedies that have documented medicinal uses for thousands of years. A few years back I began writing an article to vent my frustrations to counter the mainstream version of these plants as insidious, noxious species sweeping over our lands with no benefit. Through my deepening work with these plants, I learned that these opportunistic species are providing essential ecological functions for the Earth by protecting, enhancing, and cleaning the soils and waters in which they live. This has lead to my adventure into writing a book to demonstrate the benefits of ‘invasive’ plants and to uncover the origins of this fallacy of the ‘bad’ plant.
Today’s ‘War on Invasives’ is full of ‘scientific’ theories and far-reaching policies based on opinions of ‘good’ plants versus ‘bad’ plants, in which the federal government, various corporations, nature-based organizations, and the puritanical public allocate billions of dollars trying to control the wilds of Nature. Deadly herbicides, destructive removal policies, and a hate mentality divert vast resources that could be better spent on more imperative issues like habitat preservation, studying plant medicines, and renewable resources. This war results from individuals and Big Business with vested interests, which have created the belief that the movement of a new, ‘exotic’ plant species entering a ‘native’ ecosystem is harmful to the surrounding inhabitants.
All plants have been on the move for hundreds of millions of years with numerous factors helping them along into areas they did not previously inhabit. The idea of a weed was born with the invention of the ‘crop’ some 10,000 years ago, as a plant that interfered with agriculture. The nature of a weed is opportunistic and we, as humans, have created enormous holes of opportunity for these plants to fill. Weeds have evolved to withstand the punishments that humans unleash upon them.
The plants considered ‘invasive’ today were brought here and spread around with the help of people and were cherished for food, medicine, ornament, soil enhancement, and scientific curiosity. Over time though, these plants have ‘escaped’ into the wilds and have found an ecological niche, in dynamic equilibrium, amongst the different species within the landscape.
Within their niche, all plants serve ecological functions for their environment. Mullein, for example, will blanket the land where fires cleared down forests. This appears as though the plant is ‘invading’ the land, but after a year or two, new species emerge and diversity expands. Mullein has acted as a kind of Earth balm, that eases and ‘blankets’ the internal burns and helps regenerate new growth, which it also happens to do for the human lungs. And while some plants provide food and medicine for inhabitants, some protect the land after improper clearing (blackberry, barberry, wild rose), some cleanse the water (common reed, purple loosestrife, water hyacinth), some rejuvenate degraded lands (wild mustard, Russian olive, Scotch broom), and some breakdown and clean up toxins and pollutants from the soil (Japanese knotweed, salt cedar, kudzu).
The plants are here for a reason— to serve essential ecological functions and for us to use as medicine.
With the widespread appearance of these plants, we find the remedies growing all around us to cure our modern ills. The present day ‘invasion’ of plants appears to parallel the epidemic movement of pathogenic influences, revealing the symbiotic relationship between plants and disease. The plants are cleaning the industrial spills, healing the toxic and pathogenic illnesses, and providing restoration for both the land and endangered medicinal plants. The rampant wetland plant known as common reed has been found to effectively clean sewage waste and remove 14 heavy metals and at least 11 common pollutants from the water in which it grows. We see invasive plants arriving to treat invasive, endemic disease; i.e., Japanese knotweed is spreading in the same trajectory and at the same rate as Lyme disease throughout North America. And we find powerful plant remedies to replace the endangered ones that have been overharvested for medicine, disturbed by development, and poisoned with industrial progress. There is Siberian elm as a substitute for slippery elm, barberry for goldenseal, and purple loosestrife for eyebright.
Nature is in constant flux. Plants have an intelligence of their own, and we have created habitats in which these ‘exotics’ flourish. I do know that many of our beloved places harbor these uninvited guests, but maybe we should let them have their space and make use of these plants when we can.
May we all come to our senses and begin listening to these bountiful green teachers of the land, who speak with an ancient eloquence of deep ecological understanding.
United Plant Savers, Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, Winter 2010
Copyright 2010, Timothy Lee Scott, All Rights Reserved