Learning to love weeds: Beyond the War on Invasive Species

Dandelions. Bull thistle. Kudzu. Japanese knotweed. Himalayan blackberry.

From front lawns to woodlands, these are among the most despised of plant species. Species that, we are told, are hell-bent on taking over every square inch of soil, crowding out native species, ruining ecosystems, giving gardeners ulcers.

But what if everything we know about weeds is wrong? What if the invasive species we have grown to hate, have spent millions of dollars on fighting, are not so awful after all? What if they have something important to tell us about our soil, our ecosystems? What if these species have something to offer these ecosystems, something restorative, even beneficial?

Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration by Tao Orion will open your eyes to the plants we have long viewed as weeds and inspire a permaculture-based approach to gardening.

And don’t let the subtitle intimidate you — this is a book that any gardener will find well worth a read. Frankly, it’s a book everyone should read before running out to the store for pesticide.

Tao Orion opens the book on her experiences in wetlands restoration outside Eugene, Oregon and the invasive species they battled, sometimes with chemicals, in an effort to restore native species. In doing so, they learned that invasive species thrived where reintroduced native species struggled. She came to realize that these invasive species were there for a reason, and they were serving important purposes: “The bees didn’t appear to mind that the nectar they sipped came from a flower that originated in Europe nor did the frogs seem to care that the low-growing thatch of rattail fescue hailed from the same region.”

She took a step back and began to take a “big picture” look at restoration, at the history of the land, disturbances, changes in climate, introduced chemicals. All of these factors play a role in which species thrive in an area and which do not. Labeling a plant “invasive” creates an unhealthy dynamic of viewing plants in good and evil terms. She writes: “The presence of invasive species is not necessarily a problem to be solved, but rather an invitation to delve deeply into understanding the complex ecosystem dynamics to which they are intrinsically related.” In other words, before reaching for the Roundup, take a moment to study your own ecosystem. Better yet, skip the chemicals entirely.

Orion writes about how poorly regulated and understood pesticides are. How we almost always use far more chemicals than we should and how there is no way of knowing exactly what all these chemicals are doing to our bodies over time. It’s safe to say every American has some amount of glyphosate in their systems by now.

Orion challenges the notion that invasive species have made other species extinct. While invasives can be quite aggressive, there is little evidence that they alone destroy other species. There are a host of reasons why native species may be in decline; invasive species are more often correlative than causative.

She cites many examples of how we vilify these species, none more ironic than spartina (or cordgrass) a grass that grows along salt marshes. Over the past few decades, spartina has been labeled an invasive species in bays from San Franscico up north to Wallapa Bay, in Washington. Government agencies have dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of pesticides on the plants. But on the East Coast, spartina is viewed as a critical member of the coastal system, home to birds and a barrier that helps minimize storm surges. But spartina strands have been on the decline, leading researchers on the East Coast searching for ways to save spartina while researches on the left coast search for ways to eradicate it.

I appreciate how Orion places our experiences with nature in historical terms, focusing on the natives who tended to the land long before Europeans arrived. In a section titled “The Myth of Wilderness,” she writes: “America’s most celebrated wilderness areas were once peoples’ homes, and many of the most prized native plants are remnants from gardens and orchards.” In other words, humans have been gardening from the very beginning and our ancestors did a far better job of it than we are today.

My only criticism of the book is in how the author sidesteps around the destructive forces of animal agriculture. Instead of offering up ways to minimize the damage of grazing animals, it would have been nice to see her question the industry entirely, an industry completely at odds with any permaculture-based worldview.

Scotch broom, widely reviled in these parts, is a nitrogen fixer. Like so many invasive, it plays a critical role in creating healthier soil. And this is what a permaculture-based approach to gardening is all about. In fact, Orion documents numerous examples of so-called invasive species that play a critical role in improving our soil and water.

In truth, we are not at war with invasive species. This war was manufactured by companies trying to sell chemicals. The only war we should be fighting now is with the government agencies and politicians who would maintain the status quo. It’s time to rethink everything we know about how we relate to the land and this book provides the insights and inspiration to get started.

Beyond the War on Invasive Species
Tao Orion
Chelsea Green

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