Insightful, Inciting, Invasives

Verbascum thapsus , originally from Europe, north Africa, and parts of Asia (and now prolific in my yard)

Verbascum thapsus, originally from Europe, north Africa, and parts of Asia (and now prolific in my yard)

Invasive. Exotic. Introduced.

These are dirty words in the lingo of many botanists and naturalists. The division that this creates in the botanical/herbal world is astonishing.
I first heard these words in the context of plants when I was pretty small (like, legs dangling off the chair small). There was a land trust conservation meeting and I remember there being a lot of fuss about a plant called Barberry.
Though I remember only vague details, what filtered down was that barberry was b-a-d,  BAD. That it pushed out other native species to the detriment of the forest and wider ecology. Like a bad apple spoiling the rest of the barrel.

Hypericum perforatum, St. John's Wort, another European native now naturalized in the US and many other parts of the world. Seen as waving fields of golden flowers in parts of the Pacific Northwest, and thought of by many there as anything but lovely for it.

Defining Invasive

Years later as a forestry student I came across similarly strong language about a number of invasive species in the Southwest. I learned a few more details about exactly what qualified a species as invasive.
The biggies are (very generally, and don’t quote me on this, it was awhile ago):

  1. They are not native. That is to say, they were not documented as being present as of European settlement of the Americas.
  2. They are established by some means of human influence, either direct or indirect (bottoms of shoes, tires, etc., brought over in the seed chests of European grandmothers, and so on).
  3. They are likely to cause environmental harm or harm to human health.

An Invasive Education

At the time of my forestry education I was in Northern Arizona, and my day job was working for an ecological restoration outfit. One of the big bad beasties of the day was Wooly Mullein, which came into disturbed areas on the heels of intense fires.

The stink was that it crowded out native seedlings, taking up precious sunlight and water. As a nascent herbalist and primitive skills enthusiast, I was torn.

A Wooly Issue

Wooly Mullein was a plant I had come to know as both medicine and handy dandy firemaker. The long pithy stems make fantastic hand-drills (method of making friction fire-if you want to know more, click here to see it in action).

The leaves and flowers were a medicine I had just started exploring for the beginnings of colds and flu.
I kept quiet about this for a while. But after a day taking notes for the graduate student whose project was focused on mullein, I finally asked him whether he thought the mullein might be doing some sort of good. 

“Well, sure” was his nonchalant reply.  He talked about how the tap-roots held in soil from erosion, and how the wooly leaves, while casting shade, eventually decomposed and improved the soil.  What he came to was that it was a tough question, and that not everything about ‘invasive’ species was cut and dry.

A naturalized species of Homo sapiens, subspecies Kat Mackinnon, the author seen here being slightly, if only temporarily, invasive to this small field of native flowers.

A Tough Call

It's over 10 years later and I’m still torn. As an herbalist some of my favorite medicines are non-native. Dandelion, mullein, yellow dock, St. John’s wort, and plantain are all common herbs in my apothecary jars

(For those of you nerds out there, I know we have our own native versions of these, but you get what I mean).
There are now many folks out there who think that plants grow in particular regions because they are needed there.

  • Poison ivy guarding the disturbed spaces so that the ground can heal there.
  • The fields of St. John’s Wort growing to excess in the Pacific Northwest to cure all that melancholy from the constantly cloudy weather.
  • The purslane and mallow growing in the driest soil to provide needed moisture to human and other animal populations.
  • The Japanese barberry of land-trust meeting fame being used as a medicine for Lyme disease, the new malaria of the Eastern US. 

A Native Issue

I understand and to a certain extent agree with this ethos. But I also have native species that I grew up with, and that I see growing scarcer. A patch of cattail that grows in the wetlands near where I live has slowly been diminishing for the past 10 years.

It’s being crowded out by a more aggressive grass, called Phragmite, a relatively recent addition to the local ecology. Russian olive, a shrub introduced for it’s pretty foliage and berries, is now slowly shading the Boneset that used to be so prolific near me.

Though we also have a native reed grass, this one is Phragmities australis, and can be seen taking over many wetlands throughout much of the US, especially on the Eastern Coastline.

We also have native plantains, but this is Plantago lanceolata, an introduced species. This particular species, called Narrow Leaf Plantain, originally had it's roots in acidic British Isle soil before it was brought over on the soles of someones shoes.

No Easy Answers

I have my own actions that I take from this. I occasionally I take a pair of loppers to the Russian olive to give the Boneset a bit of breathing space. I’ll spread cattail seeds with vigor in the swamp near my house.

But having said all this, I also find myself adapting to using the invasive species. Russian olive berries into jam. European weeds in the garden as food and medicine. After all, as someone with European ancestry, I am basically 10th generation invasive, so this seems appropriate.
I don’t have a perfect answer for the issue of invasive species, probably never will. The best I seem to be able to do is be aware of my surroundings, encourage diversity when and where I can, and try not to be too quick to judge anything as bad or good. Hard as that might be:)
If your interested in learning more about the different sides of the story, take a look at the resources below:

How to Learn More

Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant walks and the the Introduction to Herbal Medicine classes through Meet the Green.


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