Invasive Plant Species in New England
Kill Them All? Learn to Live With Them? There are no easy answers when “invasive” plants move into our forests, meadows, and backyards. But first we need to know what questions to ask.
On a sunny October morning, at the edge of a gravel road just off U.S. Route 7 in Charlotte, Vermont, I watched the Green Reaper approach. He rode in the passenger seat of a maroon Ford F-250 pickup; as he passed, he flashed a broad smile and motioned for me to follow.
The bed of the truck, I knew, carried the tools of his trade: Glyphosate. Imazapyr. Triclopyr. And, so that he might kill as quickly and effectively as possible, back-mounted sprayers with coiled loops of tubing through which his chemicals would run.
I followed as the truck rolled slowly down the road. It stopped briefly by a small pond, so that the Reaper and his driver could admire a flock of ducks basking in the atypically warm weather. The truck started moving again, then veered left into a private driveway. It pulled onto the grass and parked, and the Green Reaper emerged, smiling again, hand extended, bushy eyebrows raised in friendly greeting. In other words, ready to kill.
It wasn’t the first time I’d met the man, whose real name is Markus Bradley and who, I should state in the interest of full disclosure, was raised in the same rural Vermont town as I. Along with Markus’s twin brother, we’d been childhood friends, though we’d fallen out of regular contact as we’d entered adulthood. But I’d kept close enough tabs to know that Markus had married, had three children, and settled in Vershire, Vermont, where he was a partner in a forestry consulting business called Redstart and maintained a keen interest in the sport of ice hockey.
So it was Markus I’d called when it was time to update our forest management plan under the state’s current-use act. And it was Markus who’d spent three hours walking our 30-acre woodlot with me, moving quietly and quickly through the understory, showing me where a bear had marked a maple with its ample claws and admiring the handful of red oak growing on our land. “Don’t usually see these so far north,” Markus had said. “It’s real nice to see.”
But there was something else that Markus had pointed out that day, something that in only a few short years has utterly redefined the nature of both his career in forest management and his relationship to the New England landscape: invasive plant species. Indeed, we hadn’t gone more than 100 feet into the woods behind my home before Markus discovered the first specimen, a bush (a.k.a. shrub) honeysuckle: in my case, one belonging to the Lonicera genus, not the low Diervilla honeysuckle that’s native to New England. We sidled up to the verdant plant, with its numerous, spindly stalks, and Markus gathered a cluster of small, oval leaves in his hand. He looked at me with intent. “Once you get tuned into what this plant looks like,” he said, as he gave the handful of foliage a shake for emphasis, “you’ll be horrified, because it’s everywhere. And once you know, your innocence is over.”
It is said that ignorance is bliss, which may be true, but if so, that doesn’t account for the fact that once an ignorance is exposed, it often seems as if the only relief is to expose it further. That’s what Markus promised he could do for me, although he warned me that I should be careful of how much I let myself know. “I had one woman tell me I ruined her walks in the woods,” he told me, and he looked as though he actually felt bad about it.
I wasn’t keen to suffer the same fate, but it was too late, really: A few hours with Markus in a piece of forest I know better than any other place on earth, and already I’d come to see it in an entirely different light. No longer did it feel like an escape from the pressures of work and family, like a place to ramble carefree and untroubled, soothed by immersion in a world where things happened because they were supposed to happen, unfettered and unadulterated by the hand of humankind. Now I couldn’t walk through my woodlot without seeing the encroachment of invasive species everywhere; what before I’d assumed to be noble and beneficial players in nature’s self-regulated game, I suddenly understood to be something undesirable and even rapacious.
“Unless you do something, in a few decades you’re not going to even recognize your woods,” Markus told me. “This is a whole new deal.” Then he dropped his voice, as if confiding something: “To tell you the truth, there’s a bunch of plants coming that scare the s– out of me.” My innocence was over. I had to know more.
Given the recent defiling of both Markus’s innocence and mine, one could be forgiven for thinking that invasive plant species are a contemporary issue, a 21st-century blight on the landscape. And although there’s evidence that some species have become more established in certain regions over the past decade or so, the history of invasive (also known as “exotic” or “non-native”) plants in New England is as long and as storied as the history of the Europeans who settled here.
That’s because the early settlers carried more than woolen knickers and musket balls when their ships anchored off the stony shores of New England: They also carried the seed and stock of their favorite edible, medicinal, and ornamental plant species. Indeed, there’s evidence that humans intervened in the distribution of vegetation even earlier: Some researchers believe that nomadic tribes of Native Americans traveled with their favorite plants.
Truth is, this continent would likely not have been settled by Europeans were it not for introduced plant species. Of the world’s 20 most prominent food and industrial crops, North America has contributed few originals, corn and sunflowers among them. (Central and South America, of course, have contributed more.) The limited number of other major crops indigenous to the north include blueberries, cranberries, grapes, pecans, and possibly beans and squash (though many other smaller crops are also native). Not exactly the sort of fare upon which a nation is built, which is the very reason that one of the U.S. Navy’s earliest and most important tasks was the gathering of cultivatable plant species from foreign countries.
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