Invasive is a 4-letter word

Because Garden Rant’s Susan Harris posted this excellent rant about the word “invasive,” and because my book, which just released(!) happens to be two-thirds full of plants that self-sow and spread with certain amount of abandon and highlights the benefits of taking advantage of nature’s generosity, I feel compelled to throw my two cents in with hers.

I believe the word “invasive” is overused. I also believe that the more arbitrarily the word is used, the faster it loses its meaning. “Invasive” should be reserved exclusively for those species that pose an actual threat to ecosystems. Plant species capable of outcompeting the native flora necessary for supporting native insects and wildlife and providing essential services like water filtration and erosion control. Invasives are scary and we as gardeners bear a responsibility, especially if we live near sensitive wild ecosystems, to remove—or at the very least refrain from planting—anything truly, actually, and potentially invasive. By overusing the word to describe any plant that spreads from the roots or self-sows, we risk losing sight of that. 

Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.

Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.

And it makes it so much harder than it needs to be to determine what to avoid planting. The sad thing, especially for new gardeners who might be relying heavily on the interwebs as their guide, is that a whole lot of awesome plants are apparently off limits.

It shouldn’t be that hard to restrict our usage of the word. Many states, university extensions, and Master Gardener programs have compiled lists of specific local devils and don’t we all know them well? My Z, catching the title of this post, remarked that the bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) sending its tell-tale orange roots into our yard, its tentacles to the tops of our junipers, and its seeds far and wide from the neighbor’s untended lot, warrants a string of 4-letter words. You don’t need to be a gardener to be familiar with the most un-wanted on your region’s invasive species lists.

And like Susan said, it’s important to remember that what’s invasive in my neighborhood, might not survive the summer or winter in yours. Just because gardens from California to Cape Cod tend to look a lot alike doesn’t mean that plants exhibit the same vigor everywhere they’re grown. I recently saw crocosmia described as invasive. All but ‘Lucifer’ barely survive here. And just because a plant self-sows or spreads from the roots doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a monster. Not if we are capable of editing and managing its overgrowth. It might simply be rambunctious. Enthusiastic. Generous. I believe those are much better words for a whole range of plants too pretty and/or useful to be dismissed and disparaged as “invasive.” And if you can’t say something nice, “aggressive thug” paints a good enough picture.

My two cents. What’s yours?

2 thoughts on “Invasive is a 4-letter word

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Kris! I’ve been shaking my head at “Invasive” lists for years. Even in my own garden, in improved, watered areas a certain plant is an aggressive garden thug, whereas in a drier, native soil spot, she’s much appreciated (Sedum ‘Angelina’)!

    Ann, Thank you for chiming in! And isn’t Angelina divine… It pooped right out in my garden for some unknown reason (like overcrowding and shade). The opposite of thuggish. (sigh) Must try again! -kris

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