Friday, June 30, 2006

Invasive Plants: Good Intentions, Destructive Results

Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette often tells the story of how as an adult, he looked for a home with English ivy on it, because it reminded him of his childhood home. Only after he'd bought the house did he learn that English ivy is an invasive species not native to the area, and it was with a heavy heart that he cut the vines down.

And that's the story of invasive plants in Northern Virginia -- the best of intentions. Homeowners are just trying to make their property look nice, and don't realize the damage invasive plants do to our environment. Big garden centers are just trying to sell lots of plants and turn a profit.

But the bill for these bad choices is coming due in some of our region's most beautiful places. Invasive plants have spread incredibly fast from backyards to local parks, quickly overtaking them. According to Arlington environmental expert Steve Young, "Our parks here in Arlington have some of the most severe invasive problems you're going to find anywhere in the country." At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, 60 percent of the acreage is now covered by invasive plants. Naturalists there warn that number will only grow. As old oaks and poplars fall, young trees can't sprout up through the tangled mat of ivy and other invasives covering the forest floor.

Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment chose Roosevelt Island as the site of our 3rd Annual Hike & Happy Hour to draw attention to the invasive plant problem there, and to raise funds for invasive removals and education. Environmental volunteer Steve Campbell has spent the last couple of years battling invasives on Roosevelt Island, and estimates that more than 80 percent of the Island's arable land is covered by invasives like garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, porcelain berry, and English ivy. He says, "Some parts of the island look like a bomb went off, with trees falling all over."

And science is starting to back up Mr. Campell's anecdotal evidence. The New York Times reported last month scientists now believe garlic mustard kills off beneficial fungi in soil, stunting the growth of young trees. A recent study estimated the economic cost of invasive species damage and control efforts nationwide at more than $138 billion every year.

You can learn more about invasive plants and native plants at The Virginia Native Plant Society's website. You may notice some of those same plants in front of your home or office. And if you do, we hope you're willing to change your own assumptions as Jay Fisette did, and take one step towards reclaiming Northern Virginia's green spaces for native wildlife.
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