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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Friday - August 03, 2012

From: Hillsboro, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Invasive Plants, Non-Natives
Title: Why are invasive, non-natives being sold from Hillsboro TX
Answered by: Joe Marcus

QUESTION:

Why are nurseries allowed to grow and sell seed from invasive non-native plants like: johnson grass, bermuda grass, and king ranch bluestem? Many times when I contact a nursery or seed distributor asking what "Natives" they sale, they start by telling me about bermuda grass. My ignorant neighbor sought guidance from the NRCS (National Soil Conservation Service) and planted what they recommended - king ranch bluestem! The US government lists invasive weeds as dangerous for the US but then other departments help spread their use and make money for the companies selling them. Companies selling invasive plants should at the least be off limits for government agencies to do business with! Please explain!

ANSWER:

We think the old saw, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." applies here.  While you know and we know that the grasses you mentioned are invasive species in Texas, not everyone considers them to be a problem.  In fact, many people are openly hostile to the notion that introduced species are anything but a positive development since they consider adding new species to an ecosystem a way to increase species diversity.  They fail to realize the long-term opposite effect of decreased diversity, by loss of native species and harm done to native wildlife.

For non-native, invasive species with little or no economic benefit, the task of convincing folks they're undesirable is relatively easy.  However, grasses like Bermuda and KR Bluestem are well-established in agriculture as livestock forage.  Moreover, these two easily-established and relatively drought tolerant grasses are popular with TXDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) and other land managers as erosion control species.  Johnsongrass has fewer fans, but many ranchers encourage it since cattle and other livestock seem to prefer it over most other grasses.

The problem isn't limited to grasses and ranching.  Many invasive species are denizens of our waterways, farms and home landscapes.  A significant percientage of invasive species were introduced by horticulture.  For example, various privet species (Ligustrum spp.) have desirable characteristics as landscape ornamentals and are very important to the nursery industry.  The problem in Texas and in other parts of America is that privets have a propensity to escape from cultivation and displace native plants and upset the natural balance of some ecosystems.  How big of a problem that is depends on who you talk to.  But just about every invasive species has a champion who thinks their pet non-native is just wonderful.

Happily, many invasives are early-succession species that occupy the niche created when soils are disturbed.  Left to it's own devices, a natural ecosystem will heal from a disturbance over time and many natives will gradually out-compete the invaders.  This is not true for all invasives in all ecosystems, though.  Of course, in an agriculture and in some other land-use settings where soils are continually disturbed, invasive species often have little or no competition.

At the heart of Lady Bird Johnson's idea for establishing the organization that now bears her name is the belief that landscapes are healthiest and most complete when their flora are composed of native species.  Other organizations have missions that are focused on other concerns.  By and large, most government agencies are compelled to support whatever actions have the most positive economic or public welfare impacts to the citizens.  If their research shows them that recommending the use of a non-native species will have the most positive economic benefit for their constituents, they are duty-bound to make those recommendations. 

For the most part, only those invasive species that have been given the legal designation of "noxious" are excluded from any governmental recommenadations.  Plant species officially listed as noxious weeds invariably have a severe economic impact - usually to agriculture.

The burden of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and of more enlightened citizens like you is to educate people and agencies about the often-unrecognized costs of using non-native species and the economic advantages and other benefits of using native plant species instead.

 

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