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What I Love About Native Plants and Can’t Stand About Native Plant People

These thistles were not the ones I was used to, not the small ones that sneak through your socks when you venture off the hiking trail. These thistles were taller than me with razor spines, cactus-like. I attacked them with a hoe, keeping my distance but taking the occasional war wound nonetheless. I imagined I was Aragorn, the thistles the Orcs of Middle-earth.

The deadly thistles dotted the sheep-grazed pastures of the New Zealand farm I was working. The sheep, having eaten everything except these thistles, had literally moved onto greener pastures.

The thistles spread themselves out profusely from seeds scattered about by the wind. They were invaders and had no place on this farm.

I was not a stranger to invasive species removal, the previous year I had battled English Ivy and Himalayan blackberry in Seattle. More recently, I had unleashed my weapons against wild mustard in Los Angeles.

I love California native plants. The smell sage and artemisia release when you brush past them is the smell of the dry chapparal of my home. My battles with the invasives positioned me as a protector of native plants, defender of the realm.

This is a common mindset, one that glorifies native species while demonizing everything else. Non-native species are labeled as invasive, noxious and toxic. Native plant enthusiast band together and call themselves, “societies.” Once I saw a poster of California’s Ten Most Wanted Invasives. Pampa grass, tree of Heaven and eight others were pictured in police line-up form, guiltily standing next to a measuring tape.

This demonization is not just rhetoric and clever posters. A true war is being waged on non-natives. The arsenal contains hundreds of millions of pounds of herbicides.

Looking back, I wonder what story those dangerous thistles were telling. Sheep will eat almost anything but would not touch the thistle. Could it be that the thistles were the land’s way of asking the sheep to stay off of it, to give it a break so that it could heal?

The worship of natives and war with invasives misses the underlying cause of why the invasives are there in the first place. A new holistic thinking is necessary for our response to habitat restoration.

native plants

Overgrazed land will often produce plants like this thistle that send a clear message.

My Plant is More Native Than Yours

Native plants are typically considered the plants that existed in a place before 1492. While the arrival of Europeans to the New World accelerated the speed at which plants moved around the globe, they had been moving long before that.

Humans were moving plants throughout the Americas on extensive trade routes before European arrival. In addition, birds and other animals spread seeds. In the case of birds up to 300 kilometers.

Native plant restoration projects imagine a golden age when plants existed untouched by humans other than having the occasional picked berry. When Europeans arrived in America they didn’t see the manicured rows of crops they were used to. Humans had been shaping and managing the landscape in a way that looked like wilderness to the Europeans.

In M. Kat Anderson’s, Tending the Wild, she challenges the long-held view that the Americas were pristine landscapes untouched by humans.  The book focuses on the Native Americans of California but their example is repeated across North and South America:

Resource management is not a modern invention. Indigenous people in California and elsewhere have practiced the roots of this applied discipline for millennia… Native peoples of California very purposefully harvested, tended, and managed the wild – pruning tobacco patches, burning willow to discourage insect pests, allowing for rest periods between sedge rhizome harvests, and maintaining plants with edible seed in the understories of open lower montane forests (4).

Humans have a role to play in ecosystem management but it is not one of arbitrarily protecting the plants we name native and attacking the ones we see as invasive. Instead, we need to revolutionize our relationship to the natural world by observing, experimenting, forming long-term relationships with plants and animals and passing down that knowledge.

Edible trees like the black walnut, are common throughout the Eastern United States due to the early land practices of Native Americans.

Money, Poison and the War on Invasives

A war is being waged on plants. Chemical herbicides are the foremost weapon in this fight. Herbicide manufacturers, including Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, are fueling this war by financially supporting educational institutions and non-profits that research and fight invasive species. These include land-grant universities, The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society and The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC).

The mission of Cal-IPC  “is to protect California’s lands and waters from ecologically-damaging invasive plants through science, education and policy.” Cal-IPC has served as the model for similar institutions throughout the country. Since its inception in 1992, Cal-IPC has been financially supported by Monsanto. Not surprisingly, Cal-IPC supports the use of 2,4-D, a chemical used in Monsanto products, for control of invasive species. During the Vietnam War, 2,4-D was one of the ingredients used in Agent Orange to defoliate jungles. 2,4-D is an endocrine disrupter and threatens the reptile and amphibian life of California.

The Herbicide industry reported over $5 billion in sales in 2012.

native plants

Herbicide is an often untalked about tool in the war on invasives.

Broccoli is Not a Native Plant

Native plant people conveniently ignore the largest source of non-natives, farms.

Agriculture is one of the largest threats to ecosystems. Fields of native plants are decimated to create monocrop rows of GMO corn, herbicide drift wilts away the native milkweeds the Monarch butterflies depend on, irrigating fields of soybeans lowers the water table making groundwater unavailable to native plants.

Well-intentioned gardeners, armed with trowels, set out in suburbs across America to “save the monarch” by planting milkweed. They tout their drought-tolerant yards and bird habitat shrubs. But, our attempts to recreate native, functioning ecosystems in the space between our laundry room and driveway are drops in the ocean.

If urban and backyard gardeners focused on growing food we could reduce the need for farmland and food transportation. That is farmland that can start to actually return to healthy ecosystems. We can also choose to support local farmers who grow food in a way that regenerates land and provides habitat to wildlife.

native plants

Growing your own food may be the best way to restore native habitats.

Listen! The Plants are Talking

Invasives often thrive where there has been disturbance. Our fight with invasives doesn’t ask the more important question, “why are these plants thriving here?”

Every spring, Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains are blanketed in the yellow flowers of black mustard (Brassica nigra). This plant has been labeled invasive, a bully and evil. But, what is black mustard telling us about the landscape?

The mustard plant is most prevalent along roadways and other disturbed sites with poor soil. They form a deep taproot that harvests minerals deep in the soil, bringing them to the surface. This is a characteristic of early successional plants that work after a disturbance to improve soil nutrients and structure for later successional plants.

Places where black mustard thrives are also low in native wildflowers due to development and fire suppression (fire is necessary to germinate many wildflowers species in chaparral plant communities). The role of these wildflowers as early successional plants is to attract pollinators and insects, these, in turn, attract other wildlife. Is it possible that mustard plants are filling the void left by the wildflowers? Mustard flowers are often buzzing with bees and their leaves covered in ladybugs and other insects.

I do not see the mustard plant thriving under established oak trees or in areas thick with chaparral shrubs (buckwheat, sage, etc…). The mustard may simply be an early stage successional plant that is setting the stage for these later plants. By causing less disturbance to the land, we may be able to suppress the spread of mustard.

Wild mustard may be filling a void from a lack of early successional plants.

A New Thinking Around Invasives

We are living in an environment that is quickly changing; weather patterns are more unpredictable and extreme, there is more carbon in the air and vast parts of the earth are warming. It is unreasonable to expect ecosystems to look the same as they did 100 years ago. We should be fighting tooth and nail against these changes to our climate but we also need to adapt our gardening and land management practices.

In Seattle I worked alongside conservation groups fighting the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) but, in Southern California, I pay $5 for a tiny box of those same berries.

In Central Los Angeles there is a tree that sprouts up from cracks in the sidewalk and thrives under freeway overpasses. Angelenos hate it and like to say it smells like sperm. But, the tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), is one of the most pollution-tolerant trees. It pulls sulfur dioxide from the air and mercury from the soil. Tree of Heaven produces wood suitable for use as firewood. The tree also has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine.

What about wild mustard? It shares the brassica family with kale, cabbage and of course, mustard. Every part of the plant is edible, the young leaves have a spicy mustard taste with a bit of sweetness. What if we formed local businesses around harvesting the leaves for local farmers markets and the flowers for artisanal mustard spreads? We could harvest the non-seeding parts, including the taproots, and take them to composting stations where residents could mix in their kitchen scraps, the finished product could be sold locally to garden centers.

Invasives are telling us stories about the land, often that it needs healing. Our response has been to unleash herbicides benefiting only the companies that make the poisons. But, what if we listened to the plants? What if we addressed the underlying issues of overdevelopment, land disturbance, pollution and a changing climate? What if we stopped fighting invasives and began using them in ways that contributed to our health and to the health of our communities?  In the process, we could control their spread.

Plants are never bullies, enemies, evil or invasive. These titles are ours to bear. However, like plants, we can evolve.


To learn more about the war on invasive species through a Permaculture lens, there is no better book than Beyond the War on Invasive Species. Click on the below image.

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