State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Return of the Natives

By Elizabeth Bush

native plants
Native plants in the garden of the author. Photo: Elizabeth Bush

If you could go back in time, to what age and country would you wish to be transported? There are so many choices, and mine change regularly. But as I have been exploring the world of native plants in my garden, I can’t help but wish I could return to an age when North America was new to the European settlers, and they could observe this continent in its fully evolved state, with flora and fauna living nearly undisturbed by Homo sapiens.

The opening pages of my favorite gardening book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, offers this description of what I might see if I could emerge from a time machine in the Carolinas around 1670:

By all accounts, the landscape [the Europeans] encountered was a place teeming with diversity… Hundreds of species of birds flew over the coastline; tens of thousands of different plants covered the forests…. Botanical records and early diaries give us mere glimpses of the richness that once was. Just beyond the coastal plain, chestnut trees – some nine stories tall – accounted for fully half of the canopy of the Piedmont… Underneath the chestnuts, rivers of ferns, pools of ladies’ slippers and orchids, and sparkling stands of trout lily and false rue anemone—now rare collector’s specimens, covered the forest floor. It was a paradise of native species. 

Imagine a world with nine-foot-tall trees, and an understory filled with gorgeous flowers, plants, insects, birds, with everything they needed for sustenance: a world in balance.

But here’s the thing: even as I would be present as a European colonist surveying this Eden on Earth, I would literally be sowing the seeds of its destruction, as my farm animals’ fodder and their manure would contain European plants seeds that would soon become their own colonists in the New World’s fertile soil. According to Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici, the Native Americans referred to one of these plants, the broadleaf plantain, as “White Man’s Foot” because it grew where the early settlers cleared the land for cattle.

This was the beginning of an ever-growing procession of introduced plants, some of which grew where they were planted, and others which took advantage of a mild landscape without barriers to spread wildly, overtaking what was already there—again, mimicking the humans who had brought them.

Invasive species are not just confined to plants; they are also pathogens. Pathogens are responsible for the demise of the North American Chestnut and American Elm trees, which changed the character of our forests and our towns forever. (How many cities have an Elm Street and a Chestnut Street, devoid of elms and chestnuts?)

Is my obsession with native plants an attempt to recreate this Eden, or perhaps, to atone for my forebears’ participation in this early settlement and unwitting destruction? Or a vain hope to see a for a millisecond a glimpse of this country the way it once looked?

There are 1669 non-native plants in North America that are on an invasive species list or noxious weed law in North America. But even if we could rid ourselves of invasive plants and return the natives, it is possible that the soil once occupied by invasive species has been changed. Coyle et al.’s research shows that as invasive species move in, they can change soil chemistry and soil fauna, though this is an area that deserves to be more closely studied.

We can’t bring back past landscapes filled with species that are extinct. But we can give back to native species the appreciation and place they deserve.

This post was originally published on the blog of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability (EICES). Elizabeth Bush is a student in EICES’ SEE-U NYC course on the agroecosystems of New York City, New York State, and the surrounding environs.

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