Ban All Plants!

State, Federal and local lawmakers have been scrambling to solve the problem of invasive plant species. Unfortunately for the American gardening public, one of the best solutions to the problem is being completely ignored; creating, promoting and growing cultivated varieties (or cultivars) of these species that do not possess invasive characteristics.

Plant scientists, horticulturists, farmers and gardeners have been selecting and breeding cultivars since the dawn of agriculture. Historically, cultivars have been developed to produce greater crop yields or larger, more colorful flowers. These same techniques can and have been used to produce well behaved, environmentally friendly plants that are not invasive threats like their parents.

It is welcome news that lawmakers and the public now recognize the threat of certain exotic species which can displace native species and alter our native ecosystems. Gardeners, nurserymen, landscaper architects and other land stewards need to act responsively to preserve native habitats. No one wants to be responsible for the next purple loosestrife, kudzu, or multiflora rose; all well known examples of problematic species. The proverbial Pandora’s Box has been opened; now the question for lawmakers is how to close the box.

Banning the sale and production of plant species “deemed invasive” is the approach under consideration by some states. For example Connecticut is on the verge of placing restrictions on roughly 70 plant species. Banning most of these weedy, seedy plants would please environmentalists and gardeners alike. Most have no ornamental value with the exception of Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) two very popular garden plants.

Should gardeners, landscapers, nurserymen and garden centers be forced to forgo some of their best performing plants? The question could be irrelevant, if lawmakers would only recognize how relatively easy it is to tame these species. Many environmentally friendly cultivars are already available, but are, or will be, banned by unknowing legislators. One example is Common buckthorn Rhamnus frangula. Most would agree that the species, which has a germination rate in excess of 95%, is an invasive threat. One would be hard pressed to say the same about a new buckthorn cultivar called Fine Line™, grown for it attractive lacy foliage and distinctly narrow habit. Fine Line is not an environmental threat because it is nearly impossible to grow from seed. Even under ideal university conditions, germination studies yielded a meager 6% germination rate. There are also environmentally safe cultivars of Burning Bush and Japanese barberry. Rarely will you find a seed on the dwarf Burning Bush cultivar ‘Rudy Haag’ or the dwarf purple Japanese Barberry cultivar ‘Concorde’ but this may be irrelevant in states that don’t recognize the genetic diversity of plant species and the potential of breeding. Cultivars that have the potential to, in part, solve the invasive plant problem are being banned along with the culprit species.

Gardeners need not feel guilty for growing exotic plants, if they are environmentally safe cultivars. It’s frustrating because plant breeders across the country are addressing this issue and their work is going to waste because people are simply uneducated. Legislators are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Cultivars are part of the solution and should not be labeled as “outlaws” just because their parent species are problematic.

At the moment few people seem to care about the cultivar issue because they don’t know that “safe” cultivars exist. Gardeners, like environmentalists, are proud of our natural heritage and want to preserve native habitats. They want to do what is morally right, but they also want to create beautiful gardens in our man made habitats. Cities and suburbs present challenging growing environments and exotic plants often perform better than native plants. Contrary to popular dogma native plants are not more adaptable than exotic species. And they are not more resistant to insect and disease attacks. Quite the contrary; exotic species are often used by plant breeders to create new pest resistant cultivars that do not require the use of pesticides.

There are others who do know about non-invasive cultivars and are content to keep quiet because they’re not gardeners and they don’t want to complicate the invasive plant issue. Their goal is to keep the process moving. And the process is moving and moving fast. The question is “will gardening public wake up and smell the roses?” Perhaps, but it may be too late to make a difference. States continue to ban species of plants along with popular cultivars that pose no threat to the environment.

Now imagine the police showing up at your door and fining you $100 for each rose in your yard. It may not be as outlandish as it sounds. Many popular disease resistant roses were derived from the outlaw multiflora rose. There’s even a good chance it’s the rootstock on your prized tea roses as well. Combine this with the intent of Connecticut House Bill 5614 which proposes a $100 fine per violation (50 plants could be 50 violations) and you get the picture. Perhaps it’s time for a little common sense dealing with the problem of invasive plants. Gardeners and growers are not the bad guys and they need not be the losers. Cultivars are the answer and not the problem in the complex issue of invasive species.