Sunday, February 7, 2016

The aliens (might be) landing !

Rhododendron x superponticum dominating waterside habitat in Yorkshire. Maybe the otters like it for cover but I can't imagine much else does.
I wrote the following for Pro-Landscaper magazine, last year - i.e. for a British Isles audience. So please realise that issues may well be very different elsewhere. . . . .

The press love a good invasive alien story. Shades of martians landing and/or man-eating triffids on the prowl. There is often a hint of racism too, invasive plants almost inevitably come with national labels: Japanese knotweed, Spanish bluebells, and the language used to describe them is not unlike that used to discuss immigration issues in certain quarters.

The landscape industry is very much in the front line here, both in preventing the use and spread of invasive aliens and sometimes in their control too. But how much of a problem do we really face?

I would argue that the invasive alien story is in danger of being grossly exaggerated, and those of us who work in horticulture and landscape need to keep a cool head. First of all, we need to realise how lucky we are. While some countries battle enormously damaging invasive species, Britain faces relatively few real problems. We have an amazingly aggressive natural grass flora, which has evolved to benefit from the exceptionally long growing season we have – the result of our being on the north-west fringes of Europe, facing the warm waters of the Atlantic. Our wild grasses have an incredible ability to spread, propagate and suffocate most of what comes in their way. They may create problems in establishing garden or landscape plants but they are a great defence against invaders.

So what problems do we face? The obvious answer is Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica); the press love stories about it, and the government has responded by enacting legislation that potentially adds considerable costs to landscaping and construction projects. However, it does not seed, it is suffocated by trees, is easily killed with herbicide, eliminated by mowing and makes little headway against grasses. Neither does it kill small dogs (unlike, we are told, seagulls). It is a big problem in a very small number of localities. The main reason for its spread has been the moving of infected soil, something entirely preventable. It is important to realise it is not going to engulf the country.
'Perspective' is one thing which those who get very excited by invasive aliens find difficult to maintain. Particularly important is to recognise the difference between the spread of a species and it being problematic. Buddleia is a good example. Its appearance on buildings worries property owners (rightfully) but its extensive seeding into waste ground creates an impression that it has capacity to spread. This is liable to alarm those with a dogmatic understanding of ecology, who believe that only native species have a right to be here. Given time, buddleia gets suppressed by native grasses and in particular by our native brambles and shrubs. However even at its most vigorous it grows alongside other plants (and of course butterflies love it).

The plants we need to worry about are those that 1) do not get suppressed by our native vegetation, and 2) get the better of it, even though these may only be problems in particular places. Rhododendron x superponticum is a good example of something that does both of these; spreading even in the shade of woodland and suppressing almost anything which grows in its dense shade. Certain cotoneasters might be another, but only with regard to very localised habitats (cliff faces). With time many seemingly aggressive species decline, as local infective agents and pests discover them – there is evidence that this has happened with Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) in continental Europe. Given the costs and difficulties of eradication, keeping a cool head and focussing on identifying real problems, not headline-generating ones, is vital.

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Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

One of your best Noel. A breath of fresh air!
One of the most invasive plants I know is brambles. As far as I know - and who really knows - it is native.

Unknown said...

Japanese knotweed has been around in Europe for over a hundred years and it's kind of strange that such a fuss has been made about it in recent years. Why was there no big deal made about it in the fifties, for instance? I wonder was its recent spread to do with the reluctance to use chemical contol on it? It's maybe not quite so bad now, but using chemicals was certainly the position of last resort up until recently. I notice that in the garden press there is almost a compete silence on any sort of chemical use. People are terrified of Japanese knotweed in the absence of any practical advice on how to control it chemically. And people have become equally terrified of all chemicals.
There was no glyphosphate in the fifties, but there was the very effective total weedkiller, Sodium Chlorate. It did unfortunately have the added ability of being good for making bombs, and it was banned on that basis, which makes a change.
PS. One of the best aliens ever to reach the shores of Ireland is the sycamore tree. It makes a beautiful long lived wide spreading tree, every bit as good as an oak. Maybe it should finally be given asylum after the eight or so hundred years it's been here.