Identify and remove invasive plants quickly

October 22, 2006|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

Just because it's green doesn't mean it's good. That catch phrase is heard often when speaking to experts about non-native or invasive plants.

That's because, instead of contributing to the area's forests and open spaces, invasive plants are taking over.

"These are not your average plants," said Ellen Nibali, a horticultural consultant with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center. "They are in a whole other league and are aggressive to the point that they will not stop unless you stop them."

Also called an exotic, a non-native species is one that was introduced accidentally or by purpose into an ecosystem in which it did not evolve, according to the Maryland Invasive Species Council. But not all exotic species are a problem - only those that become invasive.

Characteristics of invasive plants include those that spread aggressively, reproduce quickly and can tolerate a wide range of habitats.

"They come over, and there's nothing to stop them," said Nibali. "The diseases and the insects that kept them in balance in their ecosystem are not here."

Without natural checks and balances, the plants squeeze out native species. Every bit of wildlife - from the smallest fungi to birds and mammals - are dependent on native plants. Start losing those, and links in the food chain also start to disappear.

"Once people start to learn what's in their backyards and start identifying plants, it's discouraging because then you realize how impacted the area really is," said Matt Bazar, a biologist and environmental scientist.

A Cecil County resident and member of the Maryland Native Plant Society, Bazar hopes to set up a northeast chapter of the society for Harford and Cecil counties so that he can spread the word that residents should do all they can to create native habitats in their backyards.

He has created a native meadow on his 2.5-acre property. He has set aside a 30-foot-by-30-foot space for the meadow and acknowledges that it is a lot of work initially but will be virtually maintenance-free when the plantings are established. He has also removed many invasive species on his property.

"People might not be concerned about the native plants, but they are usually concerned about the decline in songbirds or turtles or salamanders," said Bazar. "It all goes back to the habitat."

The best way to control invasives is early identification and quick removal. Established plants can be successfully removed, but experts advise seeking help to know best how and when to combat them. Often, the plants can be removed by hand, cut at the base and sprayed with herbicide.

"Homeowners should learn how to identify what's in their backyard and what the bad actors are," Bazar said.

The Maryland Invasive Species Council encourages efforts to prevent the introduction of and manage the impact of invasive species. Part of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the council also offers information and resources about invasive species.

"Invasive plants are a constant battle," said Carol Holko, chief of plant protection and weed management for the state Department of Agriculture. "The actions people take in their backyards can really impact our environment. One thing just builds on the other."

Another way to battle invasive species is to plant more natives, said Ruth Carlson, the horticultural assistant with the Harford County branch of the Maryland Cooperative Extension. She said native plants are easier to use because there's not a lot of care or upkeep once they are established. The extension office can provide native alternatives to replace invasive plants.

"I would encourage native plantings," Carlson said. "If you have a choice, why not put in something that is beautiful, almost maintenance-free and provides a home for wildlife."

Experts say that invasives to avoid include Japanese honeysuckles, multiflora rose, Bradford pear, tree of heaven, Japanese barberry, autumn olive, mile-a-minute vine, kudzu and garlic mustard.

Good natives worth planting include spicebush, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium, coral honeysuckle, northern red oak, American holly and flowering dogwood.

Anne Lee, president of the Harford County chapter of the Maryland Master Gardener Program, says, "The first step is to know when you have an invasive, and the second would be to get rid of those invasives. Walk your garden or yard once a week to see if anything is creeping in that you're not aware of."

The Home and Garden Information Center offers a horticulture and pest-control help line that is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday: 800-342-2507.

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