'Exotic' Plants a Threat to the Neighborhood

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Commentator and naturalist Julie Zickefoose cautions against ordering "exotic" plants from garden catalogs. They could take over your neighborhood.


While it's great to find a use for kudzu, which is native to Japan, exotic plants can wreak havoc in environments where they're not naturally found. Many of these plants are sold by mail order. Commentator and naturalist Julie Zickefoose is amused by garden catalogs, but she says buyer beware.


You're cruising down the highway when you notice that the usual roadside plant community looks like Popeye's Goon Island. Everything is draped in a blanket of exotic vines supported by the corpses of native trees and shrubs. Where do these horticultural thugs come from? The answer might be curled up in your mailbox right now.

Fancy garden catalogs inspire me to new horticultural heights, but for camp appeal, I love the cheesy ones with their thin newsprint pages and breathless prose. `Dawn Redwood grew when dinosaurs roamed the Earth!' In the catalog art, a triceratops is stomping by, and a pterodactyl hovers overhead like a friendly robin. Is your suburban neighborhood really prepared for a Chinese redwood that will soar 150 feet into the air? Such garden catalogs seem harmless, but they sell exotic plants that have no place in home gardens or anywhere in North America.

The red flags are everywhere if you know what to look for. If the write-up says, `Just water it and stand back, grows five feet a year,' it's a pretty good bet you're getting something invasive. How about the Royal Pawlonia Tree? Sometimes they call it the Royal Empress Tree. The text reads, `Amazing universal 12 foot of growth per year.' Yes, it's covered with beautiful purple flowers, and it's converted thousands of acres on the Eastern seaboard to Royal Pawlonia stands. And, amazingly, there it is on the back page still being touted as a fascinating garden novelty.

The giant pampas grasses, the ones with the big plumes, are another curse. Left to hybridize with other miscanthus grasses, they spread like wildfire. The sides of my country road are absolutely covered in the stuff. It's higher than your head, impossible to walk through, inedible to wildlife. I'm forced to spray it. Cutting, digging or burning it out is like tickling it. Like most invasives, somebody thought it was pretty enough to import. From that point on, invasive plants write their own history.

When reading these catalogs, keep in mind that once they've sold you the plant, they don't care whether it takes over your yard or entire ecosystems. Take bamboo. People are wise to it now, but imagine the catalog text: `Just plant it and stand back. Never walk barefoot again. Needle-sharp spikes the thickness of your wrist will punch through your lawn and your neighbors' lawns, too. You'll curse the day you planted bamboo.'

So the next time you see a garden catalog with a line of type all in capitals shouting, `Amaze your neighbors,' remember that you'll amaze them, all right, but not in a nice way.

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BLOCK: Julie Zickefoose is a naturalist and gardener. She lives in Whipple, Ohio.

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MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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