By Dr. Richard Koral, Leader
Spring is a busy time up here. There’s the vegetable garden to set up and the shrubs and trees to inspect, install, trim, and fertilize. What is satisfying about the plants is that they know exactly what they’re supposed to do. A zucchini has no identity confusion. It will fulfill its destiny as a zucchini, or it will fail. There’s no middle ground. You can rely on its single-minded focus.
But the garden is not an Eden of placidity, either. It is a field of competition as fought over as a shelf in Walmart. Everybody is vying for space and attention. The competition is not fair nor is it limited to the usual contenders. There are the out-of-town bullies and the Philadelphia lawyers of the plant world that install themselves unbidden and unexpected.
A survey of my yard will reveal that much of it has been taken over by foreign competition, much like that shelf at Walmart. The forest floor is covered, as far as the eye can see, with barberry, a vagabond that shipped in from Japan. In the sunny places, intertwined among them, I had been admiring the wild roses—until I identified them as the sneakily similar Japanese multiflora rose, which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation urges me to pull up and extirpate. In the shady places, the burning bush or winged euonymus, pops up here, there, and everywhere. It is a pretty little tree that turns red in the fall, and is a native of Korea and China, and is now widespread. The lawn, which is really more prairie than lawn and welcome to all genre of weeds, is dominated more and more by quackgrass, an Asian import. The sunny roadsides are being taken over by Japanese knotweed, which can’t be deterred. The tall sugar maples are aging out, and are being replaced by fast-growing Norway maples, another target of the DEC. A list of culprits would be endless, from weeds to wildflowers, aiolanthus trees to zebra clams.
What hasn’t been shouldered aside, it seems, can be under frontal assault. The Dutch elm disease cleared many town commons of that majestic centerpiece. The chestnut tree, once a dominant member of the northeastern forest, was wiped out by the cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus that sailed in from Asia in the 1930’s. I am sheltering three little ones, cuttings from a (hopefully) resistant survivor. But the crisis of today is over the ash trees, which are being wiped off the face of North America by a borer beetle from Asia. I am desperately guarding my ash trees with heavy duty chemical injections and now they are the only survivors in the entire neighborhood.
Many of these plants were originally brought to “terraform” the continent, so it would look like the Europe the colonists left behind. The very earth worms in the soil were brought here and utterly transformed the soil chemistry from its pre-Columbian condition. More recently, foreign-born plants are escapees originally imported as nursery stock for ornamentation.
Wanting to create an evergreen corner with native trees, I discovered that my local nurseries have trouble finding any. If I want Norway spruce or Chinese hanging pine, there’s no lack of supply. But ask for eastern pine, the vin ordinaire of our forests, or local northern white spruce…not available.
People may charge the imperious West with replacing native cultures around the world with the implantation of their own. People lament the disappearance of ancient cultures which may have been more authentic of location and rich in unique ways. But these distant lands have had their revenge. Cultivars from all over the world have taken root in North America, making ours the most invaded ecosystem on earth. In the plant world, we are the ones that have been colonized.