The NY Times today published a distressing ode to invasive plants in Border War, a column penned by George Ball, “president of the seed and plant company W. Atlee Burpee & Company” as the Times author credit notes. I was under the impression that Martha Stewart owns Burpee, but I haven’t been able to confirm that online. But for those of you in the Pacific NW I know for a fact and must sadly say that one of our finest nurseries, Dan Hinckley’s Heronswood, is also owned by horticultural pirate. I can’t help but wonder how Hinckley, one of the word’s great nurserymen and an intrepid plant explorer, makes of this column.
What I particularly object to is that an executive of one of the world’s largest agricultural seed companies was given prime NYT real estate to argue that his products (the non-native, hybridized and denatured seeds used by agriculture, both big–massive industrial farms–and small–suburban homeowners) are cool for the environment. The Times should be ashamed. Where is the column by a director or board member of the thousands of organizations in this country which support native plants?
Before I get farther on in this discussion, I should stop to explain that “exotic” plants (also called invasive, noxious or pest) are plants which arrive from other places and take root in our local landscape. Many times (though not always) such plants have aggressive growth habits and overwhelm more delicate native species. Speaking of which, native plants are those which have grown in your region for centuries during which they’ve adjusted themselves to climate, terrain, pests, and diseases. These plants have found a balance with nature which many exotics have not yet done. For this reason, many horticulturists prize native plants.
Back to shilling for big bucks…here’s how Ball dishonestly sets up the premise of his argument:
THE horticultural world is having its own debate over immigration, with some environmentalists warning about the dangers of so-called exotic plants from other countries and continents “invading” American gardens. These botanical xenophobes say that a pristine natural state exists in our yards and that to disturb it is both sinful and calamitous. In their view, exotic plants will swallow your garden, your neighbors’ gardens and your neighbors’ neighbors’ gardens until the ecosystem collapses under their rampant suffocating growth.
If anything suffocates us, though, it will be the environmentalists’ narrowmindedness. Like all utopian visions, their dream beckons us into a perfect and rational natural world where nothing ever changes — a world that never existed and never will.
“Botanical xenophobes”–very catchy. Must’ve been written for him by some sharp publicist. But champions of native plants are not “xenophobes.” They do not hate all exotics, but only those which destroy native habitat. Here in the Pacific NW we are overrun by English laurel, Himalayan blackberries, and English ivy among others. These plants aren’t mere annoyances. They actually overwhelm a landscape and force all native species to the margins. That’s one sure recipe for the potential eventual extinction of some of our finest plants. Ball promotes another lie when he says environmentalists dream of a “perfect and rational world where nothing ever changes.” One thing anyone who studies Nature comes to learn is what Edmund Spencer noted in his Faerie Queene, mutatis mutandis, everything changes within it and does so constantly.
In this passage Ball seems to be deliberately playing an neocon idelogical card in calling native plant exponents “radical fundamentalists,” another preposterous statement. But I find it instructive that Ball seems to be aligning his argument with political conservativsm. If you think about what’s between the lines of this article, Burpee and other seed conglomerates are under attack around the world from small farmers who believe its seed choices are destroying the diversity of seed stock developed over thousands of years of natural selection. As Sustainable Table notes:
A few huge companies now produce much of the seed used by farmers; in 1999, the 10 largest seed companies controlled about 31% of the global seed market. These companies typically sell only the widely-used industrial varieties of plant seeds. This makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to buy non-industrial seed varieties and thus contributes to the disappearance of traditional plant varieties.
And this Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products site puts the argument even more strongly:
The loss of biodiversity threatens global food security, especially for the poor, who rely on biodiversity for 85 to 90% of their livelihood needs.
[An alarming] trend I’d like to mention is privatization of plant breeding and seed sales. The first half of 1998 witnessed a dramatic consolidation of power over plant genetic resources worldwide, a trend that began over three decades ago. The global seed trade is now dominated by “life industry” corporations whose vast economic power has effectively marginalized the role of public sector plant breeding and research. Of course, the consolidation trend is not just in seeds but in all sectors of the life industry.
* 20 years ago there were thousands of seed companies, most of which were small and family owned. Today, the top 10 global seed companies control 30% of the $23 billion commercial seed trade.
Not to mention that native plant lovers are turning away from Burpee’s unimaginative plant selections and returing in droves to the plant choices that have worked best in local landscapes over millenia–native varieties.
Burpee can’t like any of this. It hits them where they live– in the pocket book. Hence, Ball’s mini temper tantrum in the Times’ Op-Ed section.
Here’s more specious argument:
The anti-exotics argue that gardens should be populated exclusively by native plants, as if the exotics were trying to enter the flower bed illegally.
What is it with this immigration trope?? Anyway, I’m not aware of “anti-exotics” who argue gardens should be populated exclusively by natives. Seems to me, the author is trying to set up a strawman who’ll fall over at the mere breath of his counter-argument. Horticulturalists, as far as I can tell, argue that we should return to natives and feature them prominently. But I know of few who argue against exotics, period. That seems extreme to me, which is why I doubt there is such a person except in Ball’s fervid imagination. I’ve had a garden here in Seattle since 1998. When I first planned it I told the landscape designer I worked with that I wanted to have as many native plants as I could while still featuring those exotics which I liked. I believe in a mix of the two with the native plants deserving pride of place for their long-lasting existence among us in this place.
[Denying exotics a place in our gardens] would compare with the denial of human immigration on grounds that certain ethnic groups breed in numbers “too prolific” for the existing elite to tolerate. Imagine, then, a horticultural ruling class. No “invasives” need apply: let the lily find another valley. Such prohibitions of exotic plant species demonstrate only an elitist snobbery that is as dangerous to a free society as it is to a free botany.
What horse crap! This is why the immigration trope is so idiotic yet so desirable for Ball. Using it, he can bring up to specter of racism calling native plant lovers racist and elitist for choosing natives over exotics. Ball’s argument is pathetic. Exotics actually DO crowd out natives and bring some species to the edge of extinction (at least in their local habitats, if not universally). Again, I’m aware of no horticulturalist (and Ball doesn’t provide any examples either) who’s advocated a “prohibition” against exotics. That would seem preposterous and impossible to enforce. Natives are not an elite, they are just common sense. In gardening, you generally go with what works in your environment. Natives work because they’ve been tried and tested over centuries, if not millenia.
Another fallacy of Ball’s argument:
No one, and certainly no gardener, grows truly destructive invasive plants in his garden.
Not true. There are many exotics grown in gardens by unsuspecting folk who do not realize the danger if those same plants are let loose in native habitats like forests which might lie right across the street. Not to mention that one of the hallmarks of exotics is that they hitchhike everywhere and easily establish toeholds in places like gardens even when the owner doesn’t want them there.
Aside from requiring a bit of weeding, exotics are safe as milk, unless one considers gardening a chore rather than a passionate hobby.
Reading this made me realize I need to invite Ball to join my neighbors in Friends of Madrona Woods who’ve spent seven years tearing out ivy, holly and Himalayan blackberry from the hillsides of this lovely urban park (and we’re nowhere near done yet). We have work parties every month. If Ball thinks exotics are charming little creatures who deserve our tender mercies and consideration, I don’t think he’d feel the same way after tearing out ivy vines for a few hours on our hillsides.
Friends of Madrona Woods is a Seattle environmental group devoted to restoring a local city park to a native habitat. We plan the first Seattle “daylighting” of an urban stream from source to Lake this summer. To learn more about how the native vs. exotic debate plays out in our little patch of woods visit our site.