What Defines an Invasive Plant?
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Learn About Invasive Plants
How invasive species are introduced, how they threaten entire ecosystems, and what can be done about them are matters of great concern.
Although invasive plants are only a small percentage of North American plant species, they have become a major nuisance. Billions of dollars are spent each year trying to control them.
The long-term consequences of the inadvertent introduction of non-native plant species can be disastrous. This is why it is critical to learn what makes a plant "invasive" and how it differs from other plant-related classifications.
Below we break down the terminology and analyze the impact that some invasive plant species have had on their ecosystems.
Invasive and Other Plant-Related Definitions
Not all non-native species are invasive. Tulips and apple trees, both native to Central Asia, can be found throughout the habitable world, but by themselves, they are not destructive to the ecosystems in which they grow.
Kudzu (various plants of the genus Pueraria), introduced to the southern United States from Japan, and loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), a native Eurasian habitat that towers over New Zealand and North America, are invasive species.
Sumac bushes (plants of the genus Rhus), although labeled "aggressive" due to their ability to spread easily, are not invasive in North America because they are indigenous.
And while baby breath (Gypsophila paniculata) can be invasive on the West Coast of the United States, it is not in New England.
The National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC) defines an invasive species as a non-native species "whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."
Gardeners often use "harmful" as a synonym for "invasive."
The NISIC considers autochthonous any species that, "in addition to an introduction, has occurred historically or is present in that ecosystem.
In North America, non-native species generally refer to plants brought to the continent with the arrival of Europeans, Africans, and other non-indigenous Americans.
However, as members of the most impactful invasive species, the first humans to arrive in North America also brought non-native plants with them, such as pumpkins, corn (maize), and barley.
Domesticated is the name given to non-native species that have been "naturalized" and have developed harmless, symbiotic relationships with other flora and fauna within an ecosystem.
The European honey bee (Apis mellifera), so vital to pollination, is an American maiden.
What is the Impact of Invasive Plants?
Many invasive plant species are accidentally transported. World trade has transported species of animals and plants onboard airplanes and ships.
The seeds can adhere to the clothing of international travelers or be incorporated into the soil of harmless non-native plants imported from other habitats.
Other invaders intentionally brought in for aesthetic, medicinal, or functional reasons can escape gardens and landscapes and grow uncontrollably.
Among the most damaging invaders in the United States, purple salcera was introduced in the early 1800s for medical use.
Kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) were planted to control erosion. The Norway maple (Acer platanoides) was planted as a shade tree as early as 1756.
The Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) was imported to the United States as an ornamental plant in 1875. And the English ivy (Hedera helix) was planted by the early English settlers as a ground cover.
Invasive species are not harmful in their own natural habitats. But, in new habitats, they generally lack natural controls, such as herbivores or parasites.
Their disorderly growth leads to a loss of biodiversity by blocking sunlight, altering nutrient levels, soil chemistry, and microbiology, depriving waterways of oxygen, hybridizing with native plants, transporting pathogens, and germinating before seeds competing for plants.
In the worst case, invasive plants can cause local extinction of native species. However, there are no documented examples of native plant extinctions attributed exclusively to plant invasions.
It is estimated that only 0.1% of non-native plants become invasive, but they can cause enormous damage; for example, the purple stripe alone has been estimated at $ 45 million per year in forage loss and control costs.
Doing your part to prevent the introduction of invasive species into local ecosystems can be as simple as checking with your local garden center before purchasing unfamiliar plants.
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