If Looks Could Kill

written by: Jake Gamble, Stewardship Coordinator

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) photo by: Elizabeth Ploog

The year is 1966. A newlywed couple, we will call them the Smiths, buy their first home. It sits off a country road, away from the city bustle. Trees and woodland surround their abode providing natural, largely undisturbed beauty. They love their home and the woods; however, both agree it is missing something. Could it be a hint of personal flair in the form of landscaping? Perhaps a splash of color? They drive to the local nursery and stumble upon plants that promise fast growth, immunity to local insects, and unique beauty. Furthermore, the florist says that these are exotic plants from far away countries. Convinced of their quality, the Smiths buy and plant the foliage the very same day. As the sun sets, the couple looks over their freshly planted shrubs, vines, and flowers with satisfaction. 

Though hypothetical, this scene is not unfamiliar to our modern world. In fact, many people flood local nurseries at the first sign of winter’s break to find ways to spruce up their front yard. The relatable scenario laid out above is one that most may think nothing of, quite innocent at its surface. Looking deeper however, the Smiths have set the building blocks in place for complete ecological decay within their forest over the coming years.

Invasive species: plants that have not spent enough time here to evolve and adapt with our native flora and fauna. These plants have the potential to completely dominate our ecosystems due to their ability to outcompete our own native species. Much of my job as Red-tail Land Conservancy’s Stewardship Coordinator is managing nature preserves and often revolves around controlling and dealing with invasive species. They are problematic for many reasons, but put simply, they offer almost no benefit to our ecosystems. Whether you are familiar with plant identification or not, you see these invasive plant species every day without even noticing they are there. Some of you reading this may have them thriving in your own front lawn.

A few of the most common invasive plants that are used in landscaping include Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus), Vinca (Vinca minor), and Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). These plants have massive potential to escape lawns and wreak havoc on neighboring woodlands. The brilliant crimson of the burning bush may seem like a no-brainer while shopping at the nursery, but consider the impact that even just one plant could have over the years. The rapid spread of invasive plants may start without you even noticing. While within the confines of your own yard, most new invasive plants will likely be mowed over. However, birds and other wildlife can spread the seed into neighboring forests, and with no one mowing or managing the woodlands, these plants grow unhindered and outcompete our natives. 

Fortunately though, these plants often have a native counterpart that can work just as well in your yard. For example, the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a fantastic alternative to many non-native shrubs. It showcases beautiful foliage in the fall and a bountiful yield of nutritional berries that feed birds. It can also be used to make tea and an allspice substitute! Another one of my favorite native landscaping shrubs is the Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). This unique native not only has beautiful color in the fall, but also serves as a fantastic source for butterfly food throughout the summer. Before purchasing a plant, always be sure to ask the florist if they carry native species that will make your yard look beautiful and support your woodlands and native wildlife. 

 Times have changed a lot since the 60s. Unfortunately, one aspect that has not changed nearly enough is our awareness of the impacts we can have on the environment in our own backyard, for better or worse. I’m sure if the Smiths only knew of the devastation they could be responsible for when looking at their woods today, they would have surely opted for native landscaping. 

To learn more about the impacts of invasive species and how to manage them, join Red-Tail Land Conservancy for Henry County CISMA’s Weed Wrangle event on March 29th at Fall Creek Woods nature preserve or Delaware County CISMA’s Weed Wrangle event on May 16th at the Dutro-Ernst nature preserve. These volunteer workdays are your opportunity to take a whack at eradicating invasive species in your local woodland. 

Jake Gamble

Stewardship Coordinator
Jake Gamble is the Stewardship Coordinator for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Impassioned by land conservation, he strives to protect and preserve the natural quality of Indiana while inspiring others to do the same.
Jake Gamble