Fighting an Alien Invasion


Friday, January 28, 2011

By Tovah Martin


Here’s the scenario: It’s one of those glistening early mornings in early spring when all is well with the world. It’s a weekend. So, you pull on your boots, grab a jacket and head out to walk the property line. That’s when the hallucinations start, because suddenly, you’re in the Twilight Zone. Remember “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the scene where all the brooms start multiplying? That’s what the edge of your woods looks like.

That one seemingly innocuous garlic mustard you just sort of ignored last year, it’s carpeting the ground. A little further into the woodland, barberry is forming a gnarled impenetrable mass. Since the ground is so ugly, you look up into the trees, where bittersweet is strangling the crabapples. Run over to the riverbank, and the thicket of burning bush keeps you away from the water.

Welcome to Litchfield County’s nightmare.

We do have one demon that isn’t all pervasive yet, but it is only kept at bay thanks to the efforts of a tireless crusader in our midst, Kathleen Nelson of New Milford. If she wins her battle, mile-a-minute vine will be gone, rather than a constantly lurking threat. Without Ms. Nelson, this vine could engulf the county in a stranglehold matching that of kudzu.

You might think barberry is just a nice place holder and you might imagine that the burning bush lining the river is kind of pretty in autumn, but think again. The issue with invasives is not only about the ground they take by storm, it’s also about the turf they snatch away from native plants—and bugs, too. Despite our prejudices against creepy crawlies, by and large native insects are good and have managed to achieve a balance.

You and I might just be waking up to the terror of invasive plants, but many environmentalists saw the writing on the wall years ago. Donna Ellis, Senior Extension Educator at the University of Connecticut and co-chair of the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG), knows the back story. Before the mid-1990s, the state hadn’t rallied its forces against invasives. “Individuals may have been looking at specific plants such as purple loosestrife,” Ms. Ellis recalled, but the initiative did not officially get under way in Connecticut until 15 years ago or so, when the first meeting of a statewide working group to explore the issue kicked off.

The hero behind it all was Dr. Leslie Mehrhoff. Curator of the George Safford Torrey Herbarium at UConn and ardent naturalist, Dr. Mehrhoff served as the director for the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE). He passed away Dec. 22, and the region lost a knight in the fight against invasive alien plants. But the groundwork he forged remains firmly in place.

Environmentalists labored to identify invasive plants that are capable of wreaking havoc with our ecosystem if allowed to spread uncontrolled. Between 2003 and 2004, legislation was passed to prohibit the import, sale, movement, purchase, transplant and distribution of 80 notorious invasive plants. That includes dame’s rocket, garden heliotrope (valerian), ground ivy (glechoma), cup plant (silphium), and coltsfoot, as well as the more generally known malefactors such as honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, and knotweed.

However, due to economic pressure, the legislation does not include restrictions against barberry or burning bush. Make no mistake about it, those plants are known to be nefarious thugs. The Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association has recommended voluntarily phasing out the most invasive cultivars of barberry (but not burning bush) from commercial inventories by 2013.

The industry sees the problem with barberry, for example, but we’re talking millions of dollars in lost revenue for the landscape business. At one point, everyone was wondering if the hybrids are as prolific as the species. Well, it turns out that the pretty golden and purple cultivars of barberry are posing a problem. Most barberries do produce seed. In a study at UConn by Dr. Mark Brand, the disquieting fact was discovered that a cultivar of barberry known as ‘Tara’ produced 9,926 seeds annually, with ‘Crimson Velvet’, ‘Sparkle’, and ‘Anderson’ Lustre Green coming in a close second.

And guess what happens with that seed. It ends up in your neighbor’s yard. Other cultivars were not quite so prolific. For example, ‘Green Pygmy’ produced only 556 seeds. ‘Aurea’ produced only seven seeds while ‘Aurea Nana’s family was limited to 11 seeds. ‘Golden Devine’ was seedless. Sale of those non-prolific cultivars is sanctioned by the landscape industry. See the complete data online at invasive_index.htm.

Also check out the complete list of invasives at, because it is an eye opener. Not only is it appalling to realize that some of your favorite garden plants (such as ragged robin) are in the reprehensible category, but you might be shocked to learn what is not on the list—poison ivy. It is a native plant and only non-natives can be included on the state invasive plant list and the ban.

So, what’s a gardener to do? Well, Donna Ellis has a strategy. Her idea is to urge gardeners to get out in early spring to combat invasives while they are young. Get the insurgence licked before it turns into a full-fledged anarchy, that’s the plan. And you can make a difference. If you pull up only one garlic mustard plant, you have prevented 350 to 7,900 seeds of this dirty rotten villain from spreading around. That’s big.

Ms. Ellis recommends learning to identify invasive plants in their juvenile stages. For example, if you catch bittersween when it is only one or two years old, hand-pulling (and completely removing the plant) is a cinch.

Keep in mind that it is also illegal to cut plants like bittersweet for craft purposes. I know, I know, many magazines show photos of bittersweet wreaths. And going one step further, although burning bush (alias winged euonymus) is not on the banned list (although it is on the Connecticut Invasive Plant List), all garden clubs have taken the stance that these plants should not be used in flower arranging. Heed their moratorium, it just makes sense not to spread around plants that have the potential to adversely effect our environment. There’s nothing beautiful about a bully.

The best time to patrol for invasives is coming right up. As soon as you can get into the field and forests, take the opportunity to steward your land. Take a bite out of the bad guys and you will be doing everyone a favor. On one of those glistening mornings, turn the nightmare back into a pageant. We live in a gorgeous county, let’s keep it that way.