Native plants, Invasive plants, Pro's and Cons

On this page are general articles on the pro’s and con’s of natives and “invasive” plants.  If you are looking for information on a specific plant, try looking on the weeds and wildflowers page. ( This page may not be online yet.  Sorry, I am working on getting these posted.)


The myth of preserving or restoring the original ecosystem

There are no unchanged wilderness areas, no “virgin” territories, no “original” ecosystems, not in the deep Amazon rain forest or the jungles of the Congo or the tundra in Siberia or in the remote pine forests of Upper Michigan.   There are some areas that may have never been visited by humans, some areas where humans never lingered long or caused many changes. And there are some areas such as we are now finding in the Amazon forests, where there were once extensive changes to the land by man but that have now been pretty much re-claimed by nature.   But nature never reaches a perfect point and then maintains it.

In school when you studied biology and ecological systems you probably learned about “succession”.   A forest fire started by lightning in a dry year ignites the forest and burns it completely down.  The area is bare; nothing living seems to have been left.  But seeds that need heat to geminate, seeds that may have lain in the soil for decades, begin to grow.  Seeds float in from unburned areas.  Animals cross the burned area carrying seeds and parasites in their fur.  Soon grassland develops, then as the nature narrative goes, brush and small trees take hold, more species of animals move in, then large trees and plants that flourish as undergrowth grow and mature and finally, viola!  the “climax” level is reached and the ecology hums along forever, all species in harmony, until the next big disaster.  (Succession teaching also uses the lake turning into a meadow scenario.)

There is nothing wrong with part of this succession ecology theory until we come to the climax- or final resting stage.  There is no completion in nature-because in nature – in the real world- nature is never finished changing things. Nature begins healing an area that has been disrupted almost immediately but that doesn’t mean that the ecological system that develops will be exactly the same as the “original” ecology.  Change may come slowly, too slowly for most of us to recognize, occurring over centuries and eons but change happens, even when there is no catastrophic disruption event.  Species flourish, and then disappear, species evolve, new relationships develop between species and most importantly new species invade. 

Why invasive isn’t always bad

Being able to disperse, to move into new territory so the population can expand is what allows species to survive and evolve. And new species and new relationships between species is what keeps an environment healthy and promotes diversity.  Nature as a whole is adept at change, at absorbing new species and losing others.  Individual species may not be so adept but that is why the term survival of the fittest has been coined.  Nature does not mourn when a species goes extinct and neither do the remaining species, except for possibly man. The species with the ability to move into new territory and thrive will out-compete species who cannot adjust to change.

Modern man is an example of a species that is very successful at expanding to, or invading, new territory.  We now know that at one point in history that there were several species of man, but all of those species have went extinct, except for Homo sapiens.  We carry some genetic material from interbreeding with those species, but all of those earlier species of man failed to survive.  There are a host of theories as to why this is so but all are a variation of failure to adapt to or move from changing environments.

Homo sapiens is the ultimate invasive species and has the ability to live in almost any environment.  Our bodies adapt to different environments by evolving changes in skin color, body shape, disease resistance and other things. Our minds help us exploit other species and develop strategies to cope with variables in our environment.  Only a few other species, such as rats and cockroaches, are as adaptable as man.

The emergence of the invasive biology theory

For the last fifty years or so there has been a great fear among people that changing an environment is always bad.  The worry is that removing species or bringing new species into an area will upset some delicate balance in nature and result in a cascading chain of events that will lead to utter destruction and chaos.  This fear of change has led to a whole sub set of biological research called “invasive biology.” 

People who believe that losing a “native” species or adding new “alien” species to any environment is harmful are often very zealous in protecting and promoting those beliefs, even though the science behind many of the harmful claims is thin and mostly anecdotal.  Recently careful, scientifically based new research and re- examination of older  “evidence“ that is often used to support  the harmful invasive species argument, has caused many responsible biologists and environmentalists to change their minds about invasive species.

There is no doubt that man, the most invasive species, has caused change in many environments and has contributed to the decline or advancement of many other species.  We have even caused changes that may harm us. But nature is very resilient. Nature doesn’t recognize invasive species, only successful ones.  Left to its own devices nature can repair most damages to the planet, including the loss of a species, and re-build dynamic ecosystems- even though those systems may not be the same as the system that existed before the damage.  These systems, although they may contain new species, are every bit as beautiful and wonderful as those that existed in some previous time.

The fact that man can recognize damage we have done that may affect our future as a species and make changes in his behavior is indicative of just how adaptable we are.  But the idea that we can restore environments to their “original” state is foolish, since there is no original state to go back to.  Do we restore the abandoned lands in Detroit, for example, to the species and conditions that were there 50 years ago or to before Europeans first arrived in the area? 

The first people to come to the area, now called Native Americans, also made changes to the land.  It is unquestionable that they too brought along species of plants and animals that were not in the area when they arrived.  They cut down trees and started forest fires to drive game.  They may have hunted or gathered some species to extinction.  So do we restore the land to pre-human arrival? 

Species arrive in new places on their own, even in the absence of man. And there are the varying periods of climate change, the advancement and receding of glaciers, and many other periods of change in the land area now called Detroit and across the state of Michigan and the continent.  It is impossible to define an “original” ecology and “native” species if we are being honest.  Even though our ability to look back in time through modern archeological methods has helped us know what conditions existed in earlier times we cannot exactly determine all of the species that flourished and then went extinct or that invaded and are from other places. 

And even if we could do this and we choose a time to “revert”   to it is impossible to replicate the climatic conditions, the soil conditions and species that have disappeared.  It is probably impossible to eradicate even some of the most recent invasive species.  Think of trying to eradicate the brown rat or the dandelion. 

Thinking that we can restore environments that once existed is a result of guilt and romantic thinking.  Instead we should focus on helping nature create dynamic environments that are suitable for the present conditions and because self-preservation is necessary for all species, that optimize our species chances of survival.  That may mean bringing in a non-native plant to clean the soil of dangerous metals and chemicals or that can survive polluted water or air.   It may mean eliminating species, even “native” ones that pose a threat to our health. 

Using species considered to be native in re-planting areas is fine because those species are usually adapted to the area. But species from other places that could adapt to the conditions are also good.  We may want also want to bring in non-native plants to help other non-native species we find desirable such as honeybees, which are not a native species.  And we shouldn’t feel guilty about planting non-native species because they benefit us.

There are very few instances where a non-native species has actually caused the extinction of a “native” species, unless you count man as the invasive species.  Most cases reported lack the scientific evidence that it was the new species that was the problem and not changing conditions which favored the new arrival.  Some of these stories have been around for a long time and until recently were never questioned.  Another article will discuss the belief that extinction of species occurs because new species are introduced.

We may want to remove or prevent the establishment of some species of plants and animals that pose a threat to our health or to our food security and that’s fine too.  But we must stop believing that all non-native species (except for a few chosen crops) are dangerous and stop wasting resources on removing or controlling those which do little than offend us because they aren’t what we believe should be there.

We can guide nature in rebuilding an ecosystem so that’s its pleasing to us.  That’s called gardening whether it’s in our backyard or in a vast nature preserve where we assiduously remove species we don’t want and add ones we do.  Or we can let nature do its thing and develop its own ecosystems, protecting an area from any human intervention at all.  We can remove the most invasive species of all, us, and stop even pretending we know what is best for a specific environment. Some forests and grasslands that nature develops by using all species available, including alien ones, work better than what existed before alien species arrived. That’s what wilderness protection should be-letting nature determine what lives and dies.



Do invasive species cause the extinction of native species?

Dames  Rocket
Recently gardeners are being bombarded by information urging us to report and eradicate non-native species.  People are urged to form groups of volunteers to remove invasive Dames Rocket or garlic mustard or Mute swans or whatever species is suddenly considered a menace to the “natural order.”  They are told to report dreaded invaders like Japanese Knotweed so their incursions unto our land can be mapped.  They are urged to rip out the non-native species in their yards and replace them with “native” ones.  The rhetoric makes it seem that we are under siege from all directions and unless we remain vigilant against terrorist invasive species we are all doomed to an uncertain, perilous, and deprived future.  

One of the most persuasive arguments used to incite vigilante actions against foreign invaders is that allowing one of these “invasive species” to flourish will result in the extinction of a native species and that scenario is very, very bad.  You hear this from people who are supposed to be experts, as well as from well- meaning defenders of nature.  But scientists know that new information and research can cause a change in what is fact and what is supposition.  Sometimes new information is hard to accept, especially when it confronts ideas that seem logical to us, such as our observation that a species disappeared just as a new one proliferated in an area. 

But science and research are indicating that a new species invading an area is seldom the sole cause of a native species extinction except in two instances, when the invading species is man, and when the native environment is a physically isolated area, as on an island.   Island and some other isolated areas ecologies may develop from a few species and often a few individuals of each species.   There is limited diversity of species and limited genetic variability to allow for adapting to change.  When change does come in the form of a species that is more suited to the environment or that can take advantage of the species that do exist in some novel way, there may be extinctions or even the collapse of the ecosystem.

Island ecologies or species that go extinct because of an invader are often used to support the idea that invasive species cause extinction of native species.  But the truth is that in a large and diverse ecological system where individual species also have a lot of genetic variability, extinctions are seldom the result of an invasive species.  An invasive species may be the final blow but the change was probably already in the wind, so to speak.  The species may have disappeared from the area more quickly because of an invasive species but nature was probably slowly easing it out of the picture before the invasive arrival.

The one verifiable exception to the invasive species being responsible for extinction is when man is the invasive species. (There are some people who even dispute that man alone is the cause of some or most extinctions.) Man, for example, can arrive on an island and kill every living animal on it before nature can repopulate it.  Or man can bring an animal to an island that could never have arrived on its own in such quantities as to decimate the ecology because it has a limited ability to adapt. 

Man often destroys environments quickly, too quickly for nature to make an immediate adjustment to the ecology.  It may be done mechanically or by chemicals or fire or other means. Man has a lot of destructive potential.  Some species can be lost because of this sudden change, although nature usually repopulates any area man disturbs eventually, although not always with the same species, because man has altered the soil, water or other elements.

Man also wastes resources in a way that most other species don’t.  There were millions of passenger pigeons in the US before the European men arrived.  Native Americans killed the birds but only in quantities that were sustainable and they utilized other resources in the environment for food.  When Europeans arrived they often killed the passenger pigeon just because it was easy to do, whether they needed food or not, and vast amounts of them rotted on the forest floor- which probably helped some other species survive but certainly contributed to the decline of the birds. The same thing happened with the American Bison. Europeans weren’t as likely to know of and take advantage of other food sources at first either and took what was easy- the passenger pigeon (or the bison).   But even if they hadn’t slaughtered the pigeons in massive amounts we don’t know if the birds would have survived the clearing of the forests that occurred after European arrival.

But outside of man a new species in an environment, however adaptable it may be, has to face a distinct disadvantage in a healthy thriving environment because the species there have adapted over time to the environment and to each other. But if the environment is beginning to change before the invaders arrival and some species aren’t adapting fast enough there may be a niche for it to take hold in.  What appears to be an explosion of the new species is because the conditions in the environment are more suitable for it than for native species.

Zebra mussels are an example of that phenomenon.  We thought the explosion of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes was simply because they arrived there and “muscled” their way into the environment. The loss of native species was because of simple competition between them and the Zebra mussels.  But what we came to realize later was that the native species were already weak and their populations declining because of the awful pollution of the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie, at the time.  In the long run, despite some disruptions to human comfort, like the clogging of water intake lines, the Zebra mussels proved beneficial to the environment. 

Zebra mussels can thrive in polluted water and they actually clean it up.  They fed upon the nutrients that clouded the water and weakened native species that weren’t good at adapting to pollution.  The Zebra mussel population zoomed despite our misguided efforts to curtail it.  Nature knows best.  After many years the water was much cleaner- due to both the zebra mussels and human efforts to curtail pollution.  And the population of the mussels declined.  Native species of fish returned and began to include zebra mussels in their diet.  The zebra mussel is now a part of the Great Lakes ecology and if you weren’t told it was an invasive species you probably wouldn’t guess it. No native species loss can be attributed to the zebra mussel.

Almost the same scenario is true of the water hyacinth, a water plant brought from the Amazon to cultivated water gardens because of its pretty flowers.  It escaped in the south and began to clog water ways there.  It was a major imposition to humans traveling on the water and much noise was made over it crowding out native species. However the water hyacinth was also benefitting from and cleaning up polluted water.  After the initial explosion of the species and then its gradual decline we found that the water it inhabited was much cleaner and actually much better for native species than before.  No one can point to a native species and say that water hyacinth caused its extinction. And one species, the manatee, greatly benefited from munching on the plants.  Now in some areas where they were once battled fiercely water hyacinths in cages are actually being re-introduced in cloudy, polluted water to clean it up.  They are caged, however, to keep them from interfering with human travel.

These frogs don't mind water hyacinth

When we see an explosion of an invasive species in an environment we should suspect that some change was occurring before the invasive species arrived.  The soil was disturbed, compacted, stripped of nutrients or polluted. The water table changed, drainage was lost or improved, the climate changed, a storm or fire destroyed the original ecology.  Some original species had already been lost; many were weakened by the changes.  What appeared fine to us was already compromised in some way.  

Many times what appears to be a vast invasion of an alien species is because we are seeing it proliferate in spaces we frequent, like on roadsides, new housing developments, and along new trails or parking lots in parks.  These are often the most disturbed areas of the environment and what you are seeing is not indicative of what is occurring away from the disturbed areas.   In earlier times, not even 50 years ago, we enthusiastically planted non- native species that could survive in these areas.  We were reclaiming land, preventing erosion and beautifying our environment.  Now we vilify the same plants we once considered beneficial.  However there is still great benefit in utilizing species that can be pioneers in a disturbed environment, whether they are native or not.

An invasive species may hold hope for the environment after a period of adjustment, to become healthy again.  Many times the arrival and establishment of an invasive species makes the environment more diverse, attracting other native and non-native species rather than excluding them or causing a loss in diversity. Some non-native species hybridize with native species and improve the species ability to survive changes in the environment.  Sometimes there will be an initial loss of diversity in an environment and the adjustment of what species inhabit it but almost always time and nature will provide a balanced, working environment, with as much if not more diversity than before.

We should preserve places where nature can be allowed to evolve naturally and of course we want to protect our own existence by trying to control some species that may be dangerous to our survival.   We should stop the wanton, unnatural destruction of a species if we can.  But we have to respect what nature does also.  Nature often knows better than us what species are good for an environment. Just because a species like Dames Rocket isn’t native doesn’t mean it should be eradicated any more than say – soybeans- a non-native which may be far more harmful to us and the environment than Dames Rocket.  

In the history of life on earth, species have come and gone. They move from place to place, even without us.  They are still coming and going, evolving and going extinct.  All life is temporary, whether on a species or individual level.   Extinction is rarely caused simply by the arrival of another species in it’s environment because nature is much more complex than that.  And is it really our place to say what species can live and what should go?



Should gardeners choose only native plants?

The fad is still raging for native plants and many gardeners are a little confused – both about what plants they should grow and whether they are harming the environment if they plant non-natives.  A growing amount of research is suggesting that most non-native plants that “ go wild”  aren’t really that bad for the environment in the long run and that some are actually beneficial.  Of course there are some bad players- plants that poison livestock for example- but in the long run research is saying that most of the worry over non- native plants pushing out natives is much to do about nothing.  Gardeners should stop feeling guilty about causing environmental destruction if they choose to plant exotic plant species in the garden.

Pollinators are one of the concerns of the native plant crowd.  But honey bees, one of the preferred pollinators, aren’t native to North America.  It stands to reason that they adapted to new plants and that native pollinators adapt to exotic plants too.  In fact a bee would rather find a good source of nectar and pollen in a non-native plant then spend a lot of time visiting poor sources of those foods from native plants.  Some non-native plants that provide food for bees in the early spring are the dandelion, crocus, and various fruit trees that are not native plants.  Without them bumble bees and other native bees would have a harder time finding good early food sources.
Bees love dandelions.

The worry that non-native invasive plants will crowd out native species is also somewhat dramatized, according to the newest research.  When you look at a field over taken by Autumn Olive, for example, you think it’s a terrible thing.  But the truth is that that abandoned field would have become covered with some other brushy plant if the Autumn Olive hadn’t shown up.  That’s what fields do- if left alone first shrubs grow and then trees.  It’s called succession.

And a native brushy plant may not have been better than Autumn Olive. (This is just one example.) Autumn Olive provides lots of nectar for bees, it is nitrogen fixing and actually improves the soil and it provides berries for birds and other wildlife.  Trees grow faster among Autumn Olives than among many native shrubs. Eventually trees will replace the Autumn Olive, maybe native ones, maybe not. Yes, the habitat for wildlife changes in the transition from meadow to brush land but it was going to change anyway.

There are cases when non- native plants may need to be severely controlled as when an endangered native plant species may be further endangered by plants that can utilize that environment more efficiently. (And a competing native plant can also endanger a species whose environment has been altered.)  But remember that the non-native species is almost always not the cause of the native plants original decline.  It declined because its environment disappeared or became altered. That allowed a non-native who could utilize that altered environment to occupy it.  When native plants have the right environment they are generally better able to survive than invading exotics. 

For one thing our climate is changing and plant species will need to change with it.  Since man has been on earth we have been responsible for altering the plant species around us, both by changing the environment and by introducing new species through our travels, both deliberately and accidently.  In the vast majority of cases the new plant species have a neutral effect on the natural ecology of an area.  Yes, things change, but the change is the way nature sustains life.

The time spent pulling Dames Rocket, a rather pretty plant that’s considered invasive, and some other exotics, is probably wasted.  They have been around for decades if not centuries and in the broad view of things have changed the environment very little.  They may seem overwhelming in some areas- along roadsides and around human dwellings for example- but the roadsides aren’t really natural environments anyway.  They have not caused the extinction of any native species. 

Research has found that non-natives may take over certain areas but those areas are generally patchy and already becoming unsuitable for the native plants displaced. The journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” has recently published research studies that conclude most non-native plants do little damage to natural environments.  If suitable unspoiled native environments exist they are for the most part occupied by native plants adapted to them.  There are sometimes “bursts” of non-native plants in an area until insects, wildlife, and diseases adapt to utilizing them and control them so that they become part of the environment and not the domineering species.  But over time these bursts and pockets of non- natives do little harm to the environment.

Gardeners should be more concerned about exotic plants overpowering their landscapes than worrying about them “escaping”.  Some plants like Japanese Knot weed and comfrey can make your life as a gardener very hard.  But so can some native plants like Virginia Creeper and Black Walnuts.  Of course you must respect state laws that prohibit certain plants and you shouldn’t deliberately plant non-native plants in wild areas.  But don’t think you are doing something terribly wrong if you decide to grow plants in your garden that aren’t native. Native plants may or may not be easier to grow in your garden.  Some non-native trees, shrubs and garden plants may actually grow better in your human altered environment and be less invasive than natives.  The best gardens contain a mixture of native and non-native plants. 

So relax and enjoy a wide variety of plants in your garden.  Choose plants you like and that suit the purpose for which you are aiming, whether it’s beauty, curiosity, pollinator attractors, shade, fruit, screening or whatever.  Any garden is better than no garden.



Poor perspectives about non-native plants

One can repair an ecosystem to its original state by removing or preventing non-natives and planting only natives.

Native plants have evolved to be the best plants for a particular environment.

Non-native plants always cause the extinction of other species.

Non-native plants disrupt the ecology and are bad for other species of plants and animals.

Pollinators prefer native plants and must have them to survive.

One should always remove non-native plants growing in the wild.

We should only plant native plants, they are always better for the environment.

People are always the cause for bringing non-natives into the environment.

We spend millions of dollars controlling non-native plants, therefore they are a threat.


Better perspectives on non-native plants

Nature doesn’t recognize invasive plants, only successful ones.  She welcomes diversity and change.

Using the term “Invasive plants” is wrong -native plants can be as invasive and as economically devastating as non-natives.  Example- Trumpet vine vs Japanese knotweed. 

Using only native plants in your garden is the same as only using red flowering plants, or succulents, or herbs.  It’s a form of human selection of plants called gardening.

The best plant to plant is one that’s right for the conditions and right for the use you have in mind for it.

A garden should bring all sorts of cultures and types into peaceful harmony; it is the art of graceful assimilation.

There is little relationship between the amount of native flora in a garden or ecosystem and the animal life it supports.  The more diverse the ecosystem the more resilient and productive it is.

Those who advocate the elimination of   “invasive plants” often advocate bull dozers, chain saws and pesticides/ poisons to eliminate them – which is worse for our environment?

Non-native plants are often the plants we are trying to protect from other non-natives.  Examples- our crop plants, lawn grasses.   Some of those plants have harmed the natural ecology of the country far more than garden escapees and non-native weeds.   Why should humans determine which species is better than another?

Suggested Reading for better perspectives on native plants

Jay Gould examines the native plant concept

Native plant enthusiasm- ecological panacea or xenophobia?

Weed Whackers, Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species

The true story of Kudzu, the vine that never ate the south

British Ecological Society (BES). "Native plants alone may not be the best option for pollinating insects in UK gardens." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 August 2015.

University of York. "Non-native plants are 'not a threat' to floral diversity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 March 2015.

American Journal of Botany. "Are invasive plants a threat to native biodiversity? It depends on the spatial scale." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 April 2011.

Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature-  William Cronon

Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience,- David Theodoropoulos,

The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation, Fred Pearce
An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants, Stephen jay Gould,

Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order by Richard J. Hobbs , Eric S. Higgs , Carol Hall

Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know - Daniel  Simberloff



Considering Michigan’s invasive plant list

Do you have invasive non- native plants in your Michigan garden?  The DNR and various conservation groups are again urging residents to root out and destroy certain plants that are not native and considered invasive or dangerous to our native plant ecosystems.  Some of them you are probably familiar with, such as Autumn Olive and Purple Loosestrife.    Others you may be amazed at are included in the list.

According to the Michigan DNR these plants are:

       Norway Maple- Acer platanoides

       Tree of Heaven -Ailanthus altissima

       Black Alder -Alnus glutinosa

       Russian Olive- Elaeagnus angustifolia

       Black Locust- Robinia pseudoacacia

       Japanese Barberry- Berberis thunbergii

       Autumn Olive- Elaeagnus umbellata

       Glossy Buckthorn - Frangula alnus/Rhamnus frangula

       Privet - Ligustrum vulgare

       Amur Honeysuckle- Lonicera maackii

       Morrow's Honeysuckle- Lonicera morrowii

       Tartarian Honeysuckle-  Lonicera tatarica

       Bell's Honeysuckle - Lonicera xbella

       Common Buckthorn- Rhamnus cathartica

       Black Jetbead - Rhodotypos scandens

       Multiflora Rose- Rosa multiflora

       Oriental Bittersweet- Celastrus orbiculatus

       Japanese Honeysuckle -Lonicera japonica

       Kudzu- Pueraria lobata

       Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata

       Narrow-leaved Bitter-cress Cardamine impatiens

       Spotted Knapweed- Centaurea stoebe/Centaurea maculosa

       Canada Thistle -Cirsium arvense

       European Swamp Thistle- Cirsium palustre

       Black Swallow-wort- Cynanchum louiseae /Vincetoxicum nigrum

       Pale Swallow-wort- Cynanchum rossicum /Vincetoxicum rossicum

       Leafy Spurge- Euphorbia esula

       Baby’s Breath- Gypsophila paniculata

       Giant Hogweed- Heracleum mantegazzianum

       Dame's Rocket- Hesperis matronalis

       Lyme-grass- Leymus arenarius

       Purple Loosestrife- Lythrum salicaria

       White Sweet Clover- Melilotus alba

       Yellow Sweet Clover- Melilotus officinalis

       Japanese Stilt Grass- Microstegium viminium

       Wild Parsnip- Pastinaca sativa

       Reed Canarygrass- Phalaris arundinacea

       Phragmites -Phragmites australis

       Japanese Knotweed- Polygonum cuspidatum

       Giant Knotweed- Polygonum sachalinense

       Mile-a-minute Weed- Polygonum perfoliatum

       Narrow-leaved Cat-tail- Typha angustifolia

       Flowering Rush- Butomus umbellatus

       Water-hyacinth- Eichornia crassipes

       Hydrilla- Hydrilla verticillata

       European Frog-bit -Hydrocharis morsus-ranae

       Eurasian Water Milfoil- Myriophyllum spicatum

       Curly Pondweed- Potamogeton crispus

This is the list of plants that the MDNR and many Michigan nature groups want eliminated from Michigan.   You are supposed to destroy these plants when you find them.  It’s puzzling why some of the plants were included, especially those like Black Locust which are native plants.   Others are plants like Norway maple, privet and barberry which are still widely sold in Michigan nurseries without any censure.

Many of our common garden plants are not native plants and some are quite invasive.  Comfrey and the common daylily are two examples.   Dandelions are non-native and an aggressively invasive plant we see daily in Michigan.  They don’t make the list.  Probably because the control of dandelions is such a big business we don’t want them to be eliminated entirely.

Baby’s Breath has invaded the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes and that is why this species has entered the noxious plants list but although the government is spending thousands of dollars to remove it, little research has been done to see if it significantly alters the dune community.

Dames Rocket would be better classified as a wildflower.  It does spread aggressively but its pretty flowers are a favorite of bees and butterflies.  Many people grow it in their gardens to attract these pollinators.  And it’s still included in wildflower seed mixes.

White Sweet Clover and Yellow sweet clover are common forage and cover crops grown in Michigan yet they also make the non-native invasive list.  Crown vetch isn’t mentioned, but it’s non-native and definitely invasive.

Many forms of honeysuckle are listed as invasive- non-native plants.  Amur Honeysuckle is listed as an endangered species in Japan.  Most of the other honeysuckles are no more aggressive than Virginia Creeper, or Trumpet Creeper, both natives that give many homeowners more headaches than the honeysuckles do.

Japanese Barberries have many horticultural forms with purple or yellow foliage cultivars very commonly planted in Michigan.  They are literally sold by the thousands in Michigan nurseries for landscaping, yet the MDNR wants them to be eliminated.  Black Jetbead, (Rhodotypos scandens), with pretty white flowers and attractive black fruit   is recommended by many arboretums as an under-utilized landscape plant yet the MDNR wants it eliminated.

The Black Locust is listed by most references as a native northeastern tree and yet it’s listed as an invasive non-native.  The tree is poisonous if livestock eat it but many native plants are.   It’s a favorite tree of bees, although Black Locust honey can be poisonous too, but it has beautiful fragrant flowers.  The wood is tough and rot resistant and the lumber is often used for woodworking.  Why we are being urged to seek out and destroy this tree is a mystery.  Honey Locust trees also spread aggressively but they don’t make the list.
Black Locust tree

Norway Maples and Tree of Heaven are common inner-city trees because they are resistant to pollution and grow well in harsh city conditions.  Yes, they are not native trees, but neither are Japanese Maples and Ginkgos.  If we start removing non-native trees from the environment we will lose a lot of our shade and oxygen producers.

Some plants on the invasive list that people have mixed feelings about include Autumn Olive.  Autumn Olive provides abundant berries for the birds in the hall.  Those berries are also being used now in various human foods since they are so high in lycopene, an important anti-oxidant.  In the spring the sweet smell of Autumn Olive fills the air and bees make one of the most delicious honeys there is from them.  Yes they do clog fields, and resist efforts to control them but so do many other plants such as the Box Elder.  Russian Olives berries are less favored by birds and humans and perhaps it needs to be eliminated.

Phragmites are called pampas grass (incorrectly) by many Michiganders and some go out of their way to keep the road commission from mowing them down.  They generally grow in ditches or wet open areas.  They don’t invade crops very often and don’t spread by seed.   They don’t have many beneficial traits but then they don’t do much harm and many people enjoy looking at the fluffy plumes.

Purple Loosestrife once threatened to clog every Michigan wetland, but now that has some disease and insect controls it’s not nearly as threatening.  Whether we should continue to try and destroy it is debatable.

Water hyacinth would probably not survive a Michigan winter, most pond gardeners over winter it inside.  There is some debate as to whether Narrow Leaved Cattail is native to North America or an early invader.  It hybridizes with regular cattails readily.   It should have no detrimental effects that regular cattails don’t have.  Narrow leaved cattail flour is being studied as a remedy for inflammatory bowel problems.

There are some plants on the invasive list that gardeners wouldn’t miss and that everyone can agree are non -native invaders that should be destroyed.  Garlic Mustard is one, it isn’t pretty, isn’t eaten by anything even deer, and since deer don’t eat it, it takes over the forest understory where the native plants are being decimated by deer.  Let’s root it out and destroy it.

Another plant on the list, Spotted Knapweed, also has little value, and destroys hayfields and pastures.  Giant Hogweed has an impressive stature and huge flowers which is the cause of it being brought into Michigan.  However it’s a dangerous plant, causing third degree burns where the sap contacts human skin.  It deserves elimination.  Mile- a- Minute weed is also not pretty, has no wildlife use and strangles other plants.  But it’s little different from Bindweed, which isn’t listed.

Canada Thistle is an important agricultural pest and despite the name is not native to North America.  The biggest danger in urging people to destroy it is that it resembles some rare and threatened native thistles.

Many plants on the list would simply be considered weeds, of no major importance other than annoyance.   Why are Narrow Leaf Bitter Cress and Lyme grass listed and Ground Ivy and Shepard’s Purse, both invasive non-native plants, are not?

If Michigan is serious about its noxious and invasive plant list then it should ban sales of plants on the list and have botanical gardens and arboretums remove them.  People who have a privet hedge should be asked to remove it, as well as oriental bittersweet vines.  It would probably be better if Michigan restricted its list to truly non-native and harmful plants.    An eclectic assortment of plants, many of which have not been intensively studied to determine their effect on the environment, just doesn’t impress knowledgeable gardeners.



Common garden plants that are aggressive spreaders

Every gardener in Michigan has probably brought a plant back to his or her garden that they really regret planting.  The plant has taken over more space that the gardener wants it too, sometimes to the point of becoming an enemy.   While some call these plants invasive, that word should probably be reserved for non-native plants that have the potential to be a serious ecological or economic problem in the natural environment.

In some Michigan gardens a plant may become very much a pest, spreading everywhere, while in other Michigan gardens the plant grows more modestly.  These plants can behave quite demurely in some places, but become bullies and rampart reproducers in others. 

Different soil types, levels of moisture and the amount of light a plant receives can all affect its growth patterns.  Ostrich ferns will spread rapidly and take over great areas of ground in moist, alkaline soil.  In drier areas with more acidic soil they will be smaller and spread very slowly.

Virginia Creeper is a vine that spreads so rapidly in Michigan gardens that gardeners curse its strangling ways and fight to control it, even though it provides deep red fall foliage and berries for the birds.  Yet it is still sold in many nursery catalogs and in some places it is still a novelty. Another vine that can get out of control in Michigan is the trumpet vine; pretty in moderation, but if it likes your garden watch out.   It will pop up everywhere from its spreading root system and the heavy loads of vine can bring down poles and ruin roofs.

Some super spreaders

Common garden plants that can become pests include bee balm (monarda), catnip, chives, comfrey, the common or tawny daylily, daffodils, evening primrose, hollyhocks, ladybells, lemon balm, mints, narcissus, phlox, spiderwort, star of Bethlehem, violets and violas, to name a few.  Bamboo and most ground cover plants, (Bishops weed, vinca, lamium, lysimachia, lily of the valley, sweet woodruff, vinca), by their very nature are aggressive spreaders.  

Bee balm is native, but many gardeners know how fast it takes over.

Some garden plants spread by clumping - producing new plants right around the parent like hybrid daylilies and hosta.  These clumps can grow very large and will need to be divided to keep the clump within bounds and blooming well.  Siberian and bearded iris also grow to be huge non-flowering clumps that need frequent division.

Some nuisance plants are even annuals, dying each winter but returning every spring from seed left behind.   These include morning glories and dill.  Or pieces of tuber can be left behind such as in the case of Jerusalem artichoke.  These pieces may even be moved by equipment or in the root balls of other transplanted plants.  Even vegetables and fruit plants can become overwhelming such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, which spread by runners, and asparagus.

Keeping spreading plants confined

In some cases we want to have certain plants in the garden that we know may be aggressive spreaders.  If you want these plants for a certain location and don’t want them to spread there are several ways to contain them.  You can place them where they are surrounded by pavement or lawn, where if they stray they will be regularly mowed down.  

Some plants that spread through the root system can be contained in bottomless metal or cement containers that are sunk 18 inches into the ground and extend a few inches above ground.  Plants that spread themselves around by seed should have flowers removed as soon as the bloom fades.  Making it a point to recognize seedlings and aggressively removing them while young can also work.

Sometimes varieties of plants have been bred so that they are less aggressive than their original parent stock.  They may be sterile and not produce seed or produce slower growing clumps or fewer spreading rhizomes.  Look for these traits in catalog descriptions.  Anise hyssop is usually quick to spread but at least one variety, Black Adder, is sterile and does not spread by seed.  Achillea is also a strong spreader but the variety Moonshine does not spread.

If you truly made a mistake and a Frankenstein plant is consuming all your energy judicious use of a vegetation killer may have to be used.  Use a paintbrush and apply it directly to problem plants so you don’t harm wanted plants.  In a really bad case you may want to dig up a bed entirely, remove unwanted plants, carefully check the soil around saved plants for roots of the invader, replace the soil with fresh soil to avoid seeds and start over.

Some benefits of spreading plants
If you can’t afford to fill in your plant beds with purchased plants, plants that spread easily can be a godsend.  You can move them to places you need them and start new beds with the excess.   Your excess can be traded to other gardeners for plants of a different type.

Plants all have differing life spans, even perennials don’t live forever.  Having new plants constantly pop up insures they’ll always be in your garden.  Plants that reproduce by seed have the chance to surprise you with a new color variety or form of the plant, which might even make you some money.

Comfrey can be a terrible pest in the garden but its big leaves are excellent for the compost pile, adding many valuable nutrients.  Most poultry enjoy eating it and bees and hummingbirds love the small flowers.   When a plant becomes a problem for you thinking outside the box could make it an asset instead.
You may be thinking of a plant that is a pest in your garden that isn’t even mentioned here.  Just keep in mind that one man’s weed is another man’s flower!



Native shrubs for Gardens

Native plants are a hot trend in gardens and in landscaping.  They are ecologically sound choices and often require less care than other landscape and garden plants.  The problem is that they are often hard to find as some are hard to propagate in nurseries or to hold for sale.  Some species that might do well in the landscape are just not well known enough for people to seek them out.  Researchers Julia Cartabiano and Jessica Lubell from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Connecticut have been searching for native shrubs that are good candidates for landscape material and that can be profitably grown by nurseries.

The shrubs Ceanothus americanus, (New Jersey Tea) Corylus cornuta, (Beaked Hazelnut) Lonicera canadensis, (American Fly Honeysuckle) and Viburnum acerifolium (Maple leaf viburnum) were the choices that the researchers reported on in the August 2013 issue of HortScience.   The researchers thought all four species would be good landscape plants but that the Beaked Hazelnut and Mapleleaf viburnum would be the easiest to propagate. 

Beaked Hazelnut

The Beaked Hazelnut is a rounded large shrub, 12-25 feet in height.  The leaves are thick ovals with toothed edges and a hairy underside.  The plant produces catkins in the fall that persist through winter and are pollinated in the spring.  Each seed is a small nut enclosed in a tough husk with a point, the beak.  The nuts are edible and were eaten by Native Americans but the husk is covered with fine hairs that can irritate the skin of those who are removing them to get the nut.  There is also a hard shell around the nut which must be removed.

Squirrels and some birds like Jays eat the nuts.  Native Americans used the stems of Beaked Hazelnut for basket weaving.  The plant prefers sandy loam, well- drained soil and does not do well in clay soil or wet areas.  It prefers full sun to light shade.  It can be propagated by planting the nuts or rooting cuttings.

Mapleleaf viburnum

Mapleleaf viburnum is an attractive smaller shrub 3-6 feet in height.  The leaves are lobed like a maple leaf with serrated edges.  In spring small clusters of pretty white flowers turn into attractive red or purple berries that can persist through winter if not eaten.  Birds eat the berries as well as some small animals. The flowers attract butterflies and the plant is a larval host to the Spring Azure butterfly. 

The Mapleleaf viburnum berries are not considered edible for humans but Native Americans used the berries to make several medicinal concoctions for cramps and colic and as a diuretic.  The plant is useful in the landscape because it will tolerate dry shade but it does best in well drained but moist soil in partial shade.  It does not propagate well from seed; it is usually started from rhizomes as it does sucker, or by rooting cuttings.

Fly Honeysuckle

Fly Honeysuckle is one of our native honeysuckles and is not considered invasive.  It forms a slowly spreading bush up to about 8 feet tall with attractive leaves.  In late April it has sweet smelling yellow-white flowers that become reddish fruits in late summer.  The fruits are eagerly sought by robins and cardinals. 

Fly honeysuckle is tolerant of most soil and moisture conditions and will grow in full sun to partial shade.  It is propagated by seed or cuttings quite easily although plants may be a little slow to establish.

New Jersey Tea

New Jersey Tea may be the best known of these four native shrubs and does appear for sale in native plant catalogs and herbal catalogs.  It has a long history of ethno-botanical uses in North America.  Other common names are red root, mountain sweet and wild snowball.   It is a small wiry stemmed shrub to about 3 feet tall.  It has long oval leaves that smell like wintergreen when crushed and that have white hairs on the back.   Stems are green when young but turn woody with age.  The roots are reddish in color.

New Jersey Tea flowers are fragrant clusters of tiny white flowers that attract a lot of bees and butterflies. They bloom for as long as a month in early summer.  The plant is the larval host for the butterflies Spring Azure, Summer Azure, Mottled Duskywing and the Dreamy Duskywing.  The flowers turn into papery 3 lobed capsules with hard brown seeds inside.  The seeds are eaten by many birds including wild turkeys and grouse.   Beware- deer love to browse on this plant and will seek it out.

New Jersey tea is named because early settlers used its dry leaves as a tea substitute. It has no caffeine but may give an energy boost.  Native Americans had several medicinal uses for the plant.  It was used for bowel problems and the roots were eaten to give people energy on long trips.  It lowers blood pressure and the roots were used to stop bleeding- they have blood clotting properties.  The roots are also used to make a red dye.

New Jersey Tea likes well drained soil and will survive droughty conditions.  It prefers full sun.  It is slow growing but will gradually spread by suckering.  It can be propagated by seed or cuttings but the biggest problem is protecting it from deer and rabbits which are unusually fond of the plant (maybe that energy thing again?).  In the garden it is also prone to powdery mildew, especially in irrigated conditions.   This is a plant however, with some selective breeding, which could produce several nice garden varieties. In fact Proven Winners ( has introduced Marie Bleu – a hybrid Ceanothus with lilac colored flowers and red seed heads that is very attractive.

If you want native shrubs to attract wildlife and pollinators all of the four shrubs above could be good choices if you have the conditions they prefer.  These shrubs are also fairly attractive low maintenance landscape shrubs.  To find native shrubs for sale try contacting your local conservation district.  They often have native plant sales.  Contact native plant nurseries and ask for the plants by name.  If enough people ask about them the nursery may carry the plants in the future.  You can also try the nurseries listed below.



Non Native plants that are great for bees, birds and other wildlife

Many non-native plants are grown in gardens and many people recognize that these plants are attractive to bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other songbirds that gardeners like to attract.  There is a small group of people who want to restrict the use of plants to those that are native. The “official” designation of an invasive plant states that the plant does more harm than good in an environment and that was introduced from another area.  But some of the non-natives that are listed as invasive species are actually quite beneficial to wildlife and pollinators.

Most people don’t even recognize how many non-native species of plants gardens, lawns, and even what is considered wild areas, actually contain.  The USDA actually introduced many of the species now considered to be invasive.  And the truth is some of those species are still quite useful to wildlife and pollinators.   Often these plants should not be treated as dangerous invaders, but rather as useful additions to the landscape and wild areas.  They are often saviors, rather than destroyers of an environment.

The idea that some plants can cause destruction and disappearance of native species by the sole act of showing up in a habitat is slowly fading as we learn more about how ecosystems actually work.   Many people are actually questioning what long term harm invasive species have actually done, except for the hours of work and millions of dollars spent trying to remove them.  Evidence of harm that is often cited by those “native only” proponents is usually based on decades old, small, unscientific research projects or even on assumptions.

More recent, unbiased research has found that nature is remarkably resilient and adaptable.   Invasive species usually take hold in environments that have changed and that are no longer suitable for certain native species.   The environment is more suitable for the new species and so it gains an advantage.  And this doesn’t cause a cascade of lost species.  The new ecosystem isn’t worse than the old, just different.

Pollinators of all sorts, especially the non-native honey bees, are struggling to survive in many areas today.  Some songbirds and other animals are also having a hard time adjusting to many environmental changes, climate, encroachment of man, and pollution among them.  Any plants that can grow in the changed ecosystem that can help them should be welcomed and encouraged.

Some non-native plant Nazi’s are actually urging gardeners to purge their gardens of plants grown for centuries as ornamentals. They are rather selective in that endeavor of course.  You don’t see them telling people to destroy apple trees or lilacs, for instance, even though the trees have spread far and wide.  Carrots and broccoli are still allowed in vegetable gardens among other non-native crops, and herbal gardens abound with non-natives.

So this article is going to list some plants that are quite helpful and friendly to bees, butterflies, song birds and other wildlife. If you want more of these critters on your property and you want to help maintain pollinator populations you may want to grow them.  Many of these plants may be on various plant terrorist “watch lists” and you may not be able to purchase them.  But if you have them already don’t let someone scare you into removing them if you like wildlife and want to help pollinators.  The dirty little secret is that few places actually have laws in place that can make you remove them or punish you for having them.

Sure, native species also help sustain pollinators and other wildlife and if you can find them, and if they will still grow well in your area, it’s great to plant them.  But don’t rule out or exclude non-natives if you want to help wildlife and attract more of it to your garden or property.  If the plant is useful to members of an ecosystem then it should be welcomed.

Dames Rocket (Hesperis Matronalis)

Why this pretty, harmless plant is targeted by the non-native haters is puzzling.  Yes this short lived perennial spreads quickly but it usually takes over in less than ideal places like along roads, at the edges of parking lots and in disturbed areas with less than ideal soil, and in gardens, where it is often encouraged.  And in those areas where useful native plants are often lacking it provides a bounty of early season nectar for bees and butterflies.  Beekeepers love it. 

Dames Rocket grows to about 3 feet tall.  It’s usually lavender, but sometimes pink or white, clusters of flowers are phlox like, but the plants aren’t related.   It has a sweet honey scent and is as pretty in the garden as in a vase.  Butterflies flock to it and early hummingbirds will also visit it.  Some people gather the early shoots for spring greens so it’s useful to humans too.   It dies back by mid-summer, which allows other plants to take its space.  It reproduces by seed, contained in long narrow pods.  Make sure to let some seed dry and fall each year to keep it in the garden.  You can still buy seed for this plant in some garden catalogs.  Another way to get the plant is to find where it’s growing along the roadside and collect seed.

Buddleia species

Once widely touted as a garden plant that attracted butterflies and even given the common name of Butterfly Bush, buddleia is now being frowned on by the plant purists because of the possibility it might spread to wilderness areas.  In the south it has occasionally escaped and proliferated- with no obvious harm- but in colder zones 5-6 it rarely goes beyond the garden.  In fact some of the numerous cultivars of buddleia won’t even survive one winter in northern gardens.

Butterfly on buddleia

Buddleia attracts butterflies, such as red admirals, red spotted purples, skippers, and tiger swallowtails, the hummingbird moth, as well as a lot of different native bees, honey bees and even hummingbirds. The long flower spikes offer color in the garden as well as a nectar source in late summer when it’s often needed.  Hummingbirds often feed on the plants late into the evening.

 Don’t worry about planting buddleia.  There are dozens of species, colors and many mature sizes among the plants and buying the plants is rarely restricted.  They are found in most garden catalogs and shops.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Yes this one got a lot of negative press in the last century.  It supposedly choked waterways and displaced native plants.  It was a bit of a bully early in its colonization of American marshlands, but in most places it has settled in to being part of, not the entire ecosystem.  Some of this has come from pest insects adapting or being imported to control it but some researchers also think that pollution control efforts in the last few decades may have also given it less of an advantage.  It grew better in polluted waters than some native plants.

What isn’t often told that not only is the plant pretty with its bright purple spires of flowers, it also provides pollen and nectar for a wide range of species.  Honey bees, bumble bees, all kinds of native bees and many butterflies such as the common sulfur and wood nymph all flock to the plants when they bloom.  In fact purple loosestrife produces more and better quality pollen and nectar than the native Lythrum salicaria.  That’s often cited as a reason we should destroy the plant, because the native plant will produce fewer seeds. But the two don’t often grow in the same areas anyway, and if we are thinking about the protecting all the species in an environment purple loosestrife would seem to be a winner.
Purple loosestrife

You’ll probably need to collect seeds or dig up wild plants if you want the plant in your landscape.  It prefers moist areas but can grow in other areas if kept irrigated. 

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellate)

Now here is a plant that our own USDA once sold as a wildlife food and cover resource.   This small tree or large shrub can spread rapidly, and soon the non-native plant people were alarmed and began to preach against the plant.  You may notice that it will take over abandoned pastures and cropland quite quickly.  But here’s the thing.  The places where it rapidly proliferates are usually low in fertility, damaged and compacted soil areas.  Since autumn olive takes nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil it actually improves soil.   Other trees growing near it actually show a boost in growth.   It provides cover and browse for deer and other wildlife and begins the transition from bare land to forest. 

The flowers of autumn olive are inconspicuous but the sweet smell of them will drift for long distances.  The shrubs will be buzzing with bees in no time, it is an excellent nectar source and a nice honey is made from it.  Butterflies and even hummingbirds also visit the flowers.  The flowers turn into red berries which are food for many species of songbirds, who often visit the patches of autumn olive on migration flights.  All kinds of wildlife from mice to bears enjoy the fruits.  Even humans like the berries; they can be made into jams and jellies and are very high in lycopene, an important human nutrient.

Autumn Olive

You can still buy autumn olive plants in some states.  It’s usually easy to spot the plants in some abandoned field to collect berries or small plants.

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel is another foreign invader that grows along roadsides and in waste areas.  It is tall with a blue thistle-like flower that turns into a spiny pod that is attractive in dried flower arrangements and was once used to comb out wool.  It does spread by seed but once again where it grows is seldom a place that other plants thrive in.

Teasel is an excellent winter food source for small birds who relish the seeds. 

White clover, sweet clover, red clover

Most clovers are non-native species and many of them are now being discouraged as food sources for wildlife or even livestock because they are non-native.  But clovers are one of the favored bee plants and make great honey.  They are also excellent feed for deer or elk.  Leaving clover in the lawn will help keep rabbits from damaging other plants because clover is one of their favorite foods.

Clovers are another plant that improves poor soil.  Some like Crimson clover are very ornamental. Don’t be afraid to plant clovers of any kind in your landscape.

Crown vetch (Securigera varia)

This is another plant introduced by the USDA for erosion control and as a possible forage plant for cattle.  It is now called an invasive species.  It will spread rapidly in sunny areas, even in poor soils and really isn’t suitable for a garden.  But if you have a patch of unused land or a steep bank you need to cover this plant is extremely useful.  And crown vetch is very helpful to a wide range of wildlife.  Like most plants considered to be invasive this plant generally thrives where other native plants are struggling.

Crown vetch

Crown vetch is a sprawling, thick plant that in summer is covered with pink and white pea-like flowers arranged in a circular clusters or crown pattern.  It will also be covered with bees and butterflies when it is bloom, to the extent the whole patch will be buzzing and may be dangerous to wade through.  Bees and butterflies love this plant for its nectar.  It is also a larval food source for some butterflies, including the Melissa blue, Orange Sulfur, and Wild Indigo Duskywing.  The flowers make seed which is eaten by a number of birds and small animals.

The thick cover the plant makes is home to ground nesting birds and rabbits.  Deer, elk, moose and other wildlife graze it.  It’s good grazing for cattle and sheep but non-ruminants like horses shouldn’t be allowed to eat it because it is toxic to them.  The seed of this plant can still be purchased in some catalogs or you can dig up small plants.

 Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica formerly Polygonum cuspidatum)

Here is another plant portrayed as a terrible villain.  It is very fast spreading and like wisteria and trumpet vines, can damage pavement, homes or buildings.  But it is also pretty, smells good in bloom and loved by pollinators.  The plants can grow as high as 8 feet and it will grow in any soil, sun or shade.  It has hollow, bamboo like stems.  It blooms in late summer, pretty white foamy clusters when nectar flowers are in short supply.  Bees love this plant and a special honey, called bamboo honey, is sold by some bee keepers.  It would make an excellent hedge or screen that is also helpful to pollinators.

Japanese knotweed dies to the ground each fall.  Its stems can be collected and dried, cut into small pieces and bundled together for homes for mason bees and other tunnel dwellers.  Some people eat the shoots of Japanese knotweed in the spring as a green.  You’ll have to start pieces of the root- which is very easy to do, to get a start for this plant.  You will probably never find it being sold.  And it is one of the few plants that the government in your area may come and destroy.  In Michigan it is illegal to grow the plant.  But a USDA official said there is no way to force you to destroy the plants on your property and no punishment for having the plants.

Non-native honeysuckles: Japanese Honeysuckle  (Lonicera japonica), Lonicera tartarica, L. morrowii, L. x bella, Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii)

Once again these non-native honeysuckles are much abused by non-native plant Nazi’s despite many of them once being USDA introductions for the purpose of supporting wildlife.  Many of these are widespread already in “wild” areas and could be considered naturalized citizens.  Japanese honeysuckle is found almost everywhere in the Eastern US.

Some honeysuckles are vines, others bush forms.  Most green up early in spring.  Flowers vary from white and yellow, small tubular flowers to long red trumpets.  Some are highly fragrant like the Japanese honeysuckle.  But one thing is true; the honeysuckle flowers are loved by bees and hummingbirds which flock to the plants. And when the flowers turn to berries they become a magnet for bluebirds, robins, tufted titmouse, northern bobwhite, American goldfinch, northern mockingbird, and others.    Birds also nest in honeysuckle bushes and vines.

Bush type honeysuckles can make a hedge or screen that’s also good for wildlife.  Some honeysuckles can be added to gardens. Many types of honeysuckles are still sold.  There are also native honeysuckles, but many of them aren’t as attractive to pollinators and birds as some of the non-natives.  Don’t be afraid to plant honeysuckles to attract wildlife and help pollinators.

Other non-native plants to consider

All types of fruit trees are attractive to pollinators and most are not native.  Even if an apple tree doesn’t provide good fruit it’s excellent as a source for spring pollen and nectar and fall fruit crops for deer and other animals.

Weeds in the lawn, many of which are non-natives, should be left for pollinators.  These include dandelions, purple dead nettle, and ajuga.  Kentucky bluegrass, the most common lawn grass, despite the name, is a non-native plant anyway and virtually useless for wildlife.  If the weeds spread, so much the better for wildlife.

Herbs are for the most part non-native but many of them are great for pollinators.   Catnip, lavender, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill, comfrey, Lemon balm, fennel, and rosemary all attract bees and butterflies.  Some also spread rapidly, like comfrey and lemon balm, even to “wild’ areas but are seldom labeled invasive.  And they can be quite pleasing and useful to humans too.

Some common garden flowers other than buddleia are now being discouraged because they are non- native.  These include Russian sage, day lilies, various salvias, calendula, scabiosa, hollyhocks, petunias, and many other things.  This is silly.  Plant the flowers you like in your garden.  Many of them, including tropical, will attract and feed bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. They will take nothing away from native plants. They don’t cause extinctions and almost all are harmless.  Sometimes native plants will fare better in a spot, other times something non-native will grow better there.  As long as there is any plant there you’re good.

There are no restrictions on immigrants in nature.  Nature welcomes all that can come and contribute to the environment.  It’s only humans that label and discriminate.


When native gardening becomes ugly

There’s nothing wrong with gardening to help wildlife and nothing wrong with using native plants in the garden. Everyone should garden with an eye to helping birds and pollinators.  There’s nothing wrong in leaving a few “weeds” because they are favorites of wildlife.  But sometimes those who think they are creating a wildlife habitat or “natural area” are just creating a mess.  What seems to work in nature often turns ugly in a small suburban lot.

Take a look at these pictures. They are from a woman’s home in Maplewood Missouri who is being cited for weeds in the front yard. She is claiming the front yard is wildlife habitat, (which it probably is at least to rats, mice and mosquitoes), and should be allowed to stay.  The woman has been getting warned since 2012 about her yard and the city has had numerous complaints.   This year she got a ticket but is fighting it.
top photo from 40SouthNews, bottom source unknown

As you can see the front yard is quite small and the neighbors close.  This house is quite well cared for, and while we can’t see much of the neighborhood I imagine few yards look like this. And I can totally see why the neighbors and the municipality might not be happy with this yard because it is virtually indistinguishable from the yard of an abandoned house, except for the sign, which may be declaring it’s a wildlife habitat or something similar.  And the complaint also lists debris on the property, which we can’t see, including an old bathtub, refrigerator and air conditioner.

Now I have no doubt that the person who owns this home feels like they are providing a valuable oasis for wildlife in a sea of manicured lawns and concrete.   In fact that’s what she says it is and she tends to list all the important wildlife plants she has and says she tends the garden often. But you can make a place for wildlife and pollinators without it looking ugly; in fact with a little care you can have a space that is attractive to both people and wildlife.  It’s a fallacy that you have to just let things grow wild and only use native plants to have a wildlife and pollinator friendly yard.  Natural and informal is much different from weedy mess.

Let’s imagine what this yard could look like.  Let’s mentally strip it sown to bare ground and start over.  Going without a lawn in this sloped, tiny front yard should be quite easy.  Since the ground is sloped so steeply I’d keep taller plants to the sides of the lot, more like a frame and mounded medium sized plants to the center, low plants on the front edges so the house isn’t obscured.  That porch is an excellent place for hanging baskets and pots of colorful plants. A vine, maybe a passionfruit vine, could be trained up one of the porch pillars.  A trumpet vine, kept well pruned, would attract hummingbirds.

Spring bulbs, things like crocus, winter aconite, and species tulips provide early pollen and nectar for pollinators.  Plant them thickly along the sides of the stairs and along the sidewalk.  Add clumps of daffodils and tall tulips here and there for color in the yard.  Mix in some bloodroot, trilliums, trout lilies, primrose and hellebore. 

Use a coarse bark mulch between plants.  In the pictures the space between plants is filled with overgrown grass and weeds.  It’s hard to distinguish what is planted and what just appeared.

Since the foliage of bulbs needs to mature naturally and can look messy as the blooms fade plantings need to disguise the foliage.  I’d add bee balm, coreopsis, rudbeckia and Echinacea, all native plants and tending toward mounding shapes. (To be fair the woman says some of these plants are in this garden.) Some of the restrained smaller Joe Pye weeds, native and cultivated asters, garden mums, and hardy hibiscus will keep things blooming until late in the season. 

Along the wall above the sidewalk I’d add a spiller, such as trailing ornamental oregano, thyme or trailing rosemary and perhaps some annual trailers/spillers such as petunias or nasturtiums.  Trailing landscape roses are another option.

Want milkweed for monarchs?  Milkweed is fine for some species but diversity is the key even in small areas.  The garden pictured has a lot of common milkweed but little else. Plant some showy orange milkweed with common milkweed. Intersperse a few dill and fennel plants, host plants for other butterflies in the garden.  Anise hyssop and tall salvias are pollinator magnets. 

Lilies of various types are favorites of butterflies.  Plant some species lilies, tiger lilies or Asiatics in front, taller Orientals in back. A buddleia or two could be added. Garden phlox is loved by butterflies and there are some mildew resistant varieties that stay looking nice.

Pollinators love many annual species and things like zinnias, sunflowers, tithonia, cosmos and calendula are easy to grow from seed and keep the garden colorful.  Some of these also provide winter seeds for birds.

The object is to have a pretty as well as functional habitat for wildlife.  There should be some sense of organization even in an informal setting. Paths, even if small and mostly ornamental, help demonstrate planning. (Probably not in this garden though.) Groups of plants with similar shapes and colors helps form that impression as well as heights graduated from small to large and neat edges.  Color through the season is a goal.  And of course you will not be using pesticides on your wildlife habitat.

Not every native plant has a lot of value to wildlife.  And many non-native plants are quite valuable to wildlife and pollinators. In a small area you can’t have every plant that appeals to every type of wildlife or pollinator; you have to pick and choose so make your choices wisely.

When you are planting habitat and eliminating lawn in an urban or suburban setting plan on plenty of pruning, judicious weeding and lots of planting.  Remove plants when they die and cut back straggly looking non-blooming perennials.  You can’t just stop mowing and let things grow and call it wildlife habitat.  And before eliminating lawns and planting wildlife habitat in front yards you should check for any ordinances your municipality or neighborhood  association has.  If you choose to live in a specific area obey the laws or work to change them.

When I look at the woman’s yard in Missouri I don’t see a garden.  I don’t see well planned native habitat either.  I see a mess.  My hands itch to cut it down and tear most of it out.  And I am not known for having the neatest garden beds and I am pretty tolerant of weeds.  I see the point of providing plants for wildlife and strive to do so.  But I am sure that non-native plants and nice looking plants can be just as helpful as native ones. 

What do you see when you look at the pictures?   Would you change this or not?  If the owner likes it should she be allowed to do things her way or should the neighbors be considered?  Feel free to comment on the bottom of the blog or email me at

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