Staying ahead of backyard invasion

Becky is bugged. Normally one would figure I must have done something to warrant my wife’s ire, and that would not be an unreasonable assumption considering my track record. But this time, I am not the source of her exasperation. No, Becky recently attended some workshops which spurred her to read an informative book about two subjects for which she has an interest and passion: invasive non-native plants, and native plants and insects.

The workshops were part of the 10th annual Nature Daze hosted by the Brown County Native Woodlands Project. The book is one often referenced at the conference, Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy. Becky spent most of Saturday at the event then came home and devoured the book.

I have been aware of her contentious relationship with invasive plants since we first met. On our first walk in the woods together, she was packing hand clippers, repeatedly drawing them out of the back pocket of her jeans like a six-shooter ready to dual with any multiflora rose that dared to cross our path. Since then her enemies list grows ever larger as she learns to identify the alien plants among us. The latest black-hatted villain to come into her sights is Japanese stilt grass. She sees it everywhere.

She points it out along the roadsides while running in the mornings; she spies it as we stroll through city parks; and — horror of horrors! — she discovers a large patch spreading across the field next to our garden. I am reminded of those world maps of my youth which showed communism engulfing country after country, staining its red across the globe. In just such a way this noxious green weed appears unstoppable.

So why should she, or we, care about non-native plants? Well, according to the Brown County project, these plants …”reproduce rapidly spreading over vast areas with few if any natural controls such as herbivores, competition and diseases.” Because they essentially have no enemies, invasive plants eventually become the only species in the area. This decreases plant diversity which is a very bad thing. “Plants are not optional on this planet,” Tallamy writes. Among their many purposes, plants provide for insect diversity.

This is where she really gets bugged. Over evolutionary time, insects have adapted to specific ecosystems and usually can’t eat non-native plants. When alien plants take over, this means fewer insects. Unfortunately, this seemingly desirable insect-resistant quality is one reason so many non-natives have been planted as ornamentals over the years.

Again, why should we care? Paraphrasing the famed biologist E.O. Wilson, Tallamy writes, “Because so many animals depend partially or entirely on insect protein for food, a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.”

Knowing the word would catch my attention, Becky shared with me a few facts about beetles.

“If diversity is a measure of success,” Tallamy says, “beetles are by far the most successful group of multicellular organisms alive today.”

He points out that “there are 6 times as many beetles as there are all vertebrates combined and 34 times more beetles than bird species. In fact, 30 percent of all animals are beetles.”

He reminds us beetles are so successful because they are very good at eating plants — plants adapted to specific natives environments.

The importance of insects and plant diversity in our world cannot be overstated. Clearly, without plant diversity insects could not live and without insects, humans would not survive. No bugs; no us. I accept that diversity in nature is an issue about which I should be concerned. “But,” I ask, “What can I do?”

I can start in my own backyard. I can learn to recognize invasive plants and get rid of them. I can landscape with native species. I can accept some insect damage for nature’s greater good. I can change my mindset from the need to control nature to embracing its beautiful and complex diversity.

Becky still carries her hand clippers with her when we go walking in the woods. But lately I have noticed more of a determination in her step.