In the Garden:
Middle South
February, 2005
Regional Report

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When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, or in this case, kudzu jelly!

Invasive Plants

When we bought our land here in Asheville with the intent of starting a small flower farm, one of my first tasks was to request a visit from our cooperative extension agent. Not only did she help brainstorm ideas for laying out the planting areas, she also pointed out that our land was heavily infested with several noxious woody plants, including multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, and privet. Like overbearing relatives, these aggressive cousins of common garden plants overstay their welcome and, if left unchecked, will take over and crowd out desirable native species.

Multiflora Rose
With its showy, fragrant flowers, you'd think multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) would be a welcome "weed," but that's not the case. If a plant could exhibit evil intent, I think this one would. The plant is characterized by upright, arching canes with wickedly sharp thorns. If I didn't know better, I would believe that this plant actually reaches out to scratch passersby. Many a time I've come in from mowing with bleeding welts.

Multiflora rose was introduced in the late 1800s as a rootstock for cultivated roses. The plant proved to be so hardy and adaptable that the U.S. Soil Conservation Service subsequently encouraged its planting for erosion control, as well as a food source for wildlife. Unfortunately, the plant's bad habits outweigh its good ones, as it grows into impenetrable thickets and crowds out less robust native plants. And attacks passersby.

Privet
Japanese, glossy, Chinese, and European privet (Ligustrum japonicum, L. lucidum, L. sinense, and L. vulgare, respectively) are all considered invasive exotics in the southeast, yet are still readily available commercially. The shiny, evergreen foliage and purple-black berries of privet are attractive, and if I didn't know better, I'd consider planting even more of these shrubs.

Introduced in the mid 1850s as hardy, fast-growing, adaptable plants that tolerate hard pruning and shearing, privets are popular for hedges and screens. However, this popularity, combined with seed dispersal by birds and the lack of natural enemies, has made the plant a growing nuisance. It readily escapes cultivation and spreads -- especially along creeks, crowding out native vegetation.

Japanese Honeysuckle
I was lured by the fragrant flowers of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), but now that I know this plant better, I see its darker side, too. This evergreen vine will completely engulf anything in its path, blanketing tree canopies, suffocating shrubs, and girdling trunks.

Introduced in the mid 1800s, Japanese honeysuckle was widely planted as a ground cover and for erosion control. Its rapid growth rate, adaptability, various means of spreading (stems root where they touch the ground, roots readily spread, berries are produced in abundance), and penchant for engulfing anything in its path has made this a plant to avoid. Read plant labels carefully, as this plant is still available commercially.

Kudzu
Fortunately, I haven't seen any signs of kudzu (Pueraria montana) on our property ... yet. Introduced in 1876 in Philadelphia at an exhibit created by the Japanese government to celebrate America's centennial, kudzu's large leaves and fragrant blossoms proved irresistible to gardeners. And kudzu, like multiflora rose, was widely planted for erosion control.

However, kudzu proved to be more than was bargained for. The vines can grow as much as a foot a day during warm weather, climbing trees, power poles, and anything else in their way, creating the appearance that a huge green blanket was dropped from the sky. Engulfed trees look like Dr. Seuss characters. Sadly, trees so affected don't stand a chance; the dense growth of kudzu completely shades the tree canopy, and the heavy vines break weakened limbs.

More "Common Exotic" Plants
"Common exotic" -- the term sounds like an oxymoron (akin to "jumbo shrimp" or "working vacation") but it's actually a useful description. Horticulturists use the term "exotic" to describe non-native plants, and these exotics become common when they're popularized by plant breeders, or when they're so prolific their offspring turn up everywhere. Non-native plants may have no natural enemies, such as insect pests, or they may be unpalatable to wildlife, so there's nothing to keep their populations in check. They flourish and choke out native species, reducing biodiversity.

Barberry, nandina, butterfly bush, burning bush, Russian olive, princesstree, Oriental bittersweet, English ivy, periwinkle -- these are just a few of the familiar plants that are now considered invasive, and to be avoided. For more information, visit http://www.invasive.org/


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