What are invasive species, and why should I care?
Many of the plants growing in man-cultivated areas are considered non-native, and often invasive species. Invasive species are “an introduced, nonnative organism (disease, parasite, plant, or animal) that begins to spread or expand its range from the site of its original introduction and that has the potential to cause harm to the environment, the economy, or to human health” (USGS). Typically, a native species is considered native if it existed in an area before the Colombian Exchange began (circa 1492). These plants make their way into foreign areas through landscaping mulch, ornamental plants, farms, gardens, and more. Many organisms rely on their region’s native flora to survive; disruptions in the food chain of these organisms has led to extinctions of both animals and plants. Invasive plants also cost the US alone over 100 billion dollars in damage every year, making a massive impact on the environment as well as the economy. Every day, millions of non-native, invasive species are purchased and planted in gardens across the world. Preserving our native species is important, especially now, when exotic species are only a few clicks away, and information warning against them hasn’t yet caught up.
Living in South Florida (in a pine flatwoods ecosystem), I have been able to identify widespread invasives such as Richardia grandiflora (Largeflower Mexican Clover), Tridax procumbens (Tridax Daisy), and Eulophia graminea (Chinese Crown Orchid) all over my area. In my journey to learn the flora of my region, I have found that these plants are ridiculously more abundant than their native counterparts, often covering lawns and open fields in the native species’ absence. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have seen native plants such as Befaria racemosa (Tar flower), Sagittaria latifolia (Broadleaf Arrowhead), and Corepsis floridana (Florida Tickseed), which is an extremely unsettling trend not exclusive to my region. In order to find native species in my area, I have to drive out to a park where nature is allowed to grow freely. Here, I have seen both native and invasive species struggling over their allotment. When I lived in Missouri, I observed a similar, albeit less severe, number of invasive species overtaking native ones. It’s an extremely common problem that’s only getting worse, and it doesn’t just impact our ecosystems either; it’s creeping into our wallets, too.
Invasive species are costly to eradicate due to their aggressive growing systems, often taking several treatments and techniques to remove. In Missouri, white mulberry tree saplings appeared around my patio, most likely dropped by passing birds. I tried to get rid of them several times, but unfortunately, their root systems were extremely hardy and deep. As far as I am aware, those saplings are still there, trying to grow up against the patio. Unless you already have access to the proper tools to remove them, many invasives will become expensive projects or a long-term problem. The best way to get rid of invasive species is to call your local wildlife experts to find out what they recommend. Many areas have groups that focus on restoring their ecosystems. After successfully removing the invasive species, plant something native in its stead; preferably a hardy variety to take up the empty space.
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How do I know if a species is native or invasive?
The internet may have given rise to an increased trade of exotic plants, but it also offers us a way to fix the problem! Identification is the first step in determining whether a species is native, invasive, or naturalized (not native, but not harmful either). By downloading an app such as iNaturalist, you’ll be able to track, record, and identify plants in your area! Apps like these offer AI generated identification alongside human identification to get the best answer on what exactly you have growing nearby. You simply take a picture, upload it with your location details (which can be obscured for privacy), and identification begins! I wrote a post on using iNaturalist specifically, which you can read here, but there are many other great apps that are also free and useful!
If you prefer to use a field guide to identify native plants, I recommend finding one specific to your region. For example, if you live in the Missouri, you’d want to find a field guide specific to the Midwest, or even your state. However, when you want to identify invasive species, having a broader guide is helpful! For North America, I really like Botany in a Day by Thomas J Elpel. For Eastern and Central North America, I really like the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central N America by Steven Foster and James A Duke. There are some amazing guides for every area, so asking for recommendations specific to your region is the best way to get a good guide! You may find that some guides are broken down into trees, wildflowers, or even medicinal species. Choose what you think will be the most useful to you!
How can I grow native species?
If you have a lawn, consider replacing it (or just a discrete patch) with one or more native species. You may be able to find low-growing replacements for your area! There are many great plants that act as groundcover, looking similar to a traditional lawn while maintaining some native integrity. Some species, such as creeping thyme (native to Northern Europe) grow to be about 2-3″ tall and produce beautiful purple blossoms during its blooming season. Planting things like this will prevent the need to constantly mow your yard, which is a great bonus. There are also more grass-like options depending on where you live. In prairie ecosystems, finding a native grass may be as simple as waiting for a field nearby to go to seed, and then slowly integrating those seeds into your yard (just be sure you can identify them as a native species beforehand)! Every region is different, which makes your personal journey towards a native lawn unique and specialized. There is no one size fits all answer to creating a native garden.
If replacing your lawn is not an option for you, evaluate your yard and its potential to house some native ornamental varieties. Here in Florida, Purple Passionflower hosts the gulf fritillary and zebra longwing butterflies, and swamp milkweed hosts monarchs; both of these options are excellent at attracting and feeding native pollinators. They’re also beautiful and easy to incorporate into a nectar-filled garden! By researching native plants with ornamental value, you may be able to incorporate native plants into your garden without upsetting any HOAs or housemates. Experiment with growing them in pots, in the ground, and across trellises! There is always something beautiful worth planting from your area. It may take some time to find what works best for you and your area, so be patient as you research the best options!
Are native species hard to grow?
Not usually! While there’s an exception to every rule, native species tend to thrive in their natural ecosystems. One of the best benefits of growing plants native to your area is how well they do with little care! These plants have been growing and spreading in your area for millennia. Even without your help, they’re likely to do well! Find a spot where they will get the best amount of sun for their species, evaluate and adjust your soil if necessary, plant your native species, and watch them flourish! Be sure to pull any invasive species from the area, especially if they are aggressive growers or if they choke out other plants. Do not compost these unless you want a mountain of whatever you just pulled up!
Allow your plants to go to seed, and let them spread naturally! You can harvest some of the seeds to grow in another area or share with local friends, but be sure to leave some on the plant for birds and other wildlife. Birds scatter seeds through their feces, so feeding them native species will ensure their continued survival in other nearby locations.
This method of feeding wildlife is much safer for the animals in your area that may carry or contract diseases at bird feeders and similar setups. By providing a natural environment for them to stop and feed at, you’re reintroducing something they’ve evolved alongside of, and know how to harvest and use, without the chance for disease to spread!
I hope this guide has enlightened or maybe inspired you to grow native plants in your area! Knowing the difference between your native and invasive species is a surefire way to improve your local ecosystem, one patch of grass at a time.