The scientific community is a world built on theories and ideas. Some ideas are presented as the “facts of life” while others are the subjects of an eternal debate. Like in most things in life, universal accordance in science is simply asymptotic. In this article series, I will attempt to shed light on topics typically condemned by the general population.
An “open door” is a phrase widely used to describe a sense of opportunity; and it is now more worthwhile than ever to forge a key and open doors to a justifiable but highly maligned topic: Invasive Plants. Defined by the ability to thrive aggressively outside its native range, invasive plants are awarded the epithet, “inherently harmful”. 90% of invasive plants originate from intentional introductions, but they are still subjugated as a villain and eradicated. Though controlling the success of invasive plants is currently necessary, efforts to eradicate them should not be justified. What if the “nuisance” working to be eliminated, is the very thing that could restore a fallen ecosystem or ends the clash between food and fuel? The misconception of invasive plants as naturally threatening is the paradigm for all non-indigenous flora, so it is time to give these subjects a voice.
Essentially, invasive plants can create positive ecological change. Invasives have the ability to benefit native species by filling the role that natives couldn’t – incurred by human intervention.
A study conducted by biologists in 2014 revealed that the abundance of native frugivorous birds in the Happy Valley Region was linked to the prosperity of invasive honeysuckle. Not only did the alien honeysuckle encourage the inflation of native bird populations, it also increased the rate of fruit-removal of American Nightshades by 30 percent; a win-win-win for all three species. The mutual relationships composed between native species and invasive plants have also been seen to rehabilitate unabridged ecosystems. In Puerto Rico for example, acres of forestland were devastated for agriculture. With life and vegetation stripped of their natural rights, native trees struggled to subsist on the degraded landscape. The hero in this story: non-indigenous plants. The African tulip tree and rose apple were introduced to the land in efforts to nurture the deprived terrain. These foreign trees were much more successful at instituting the landscape, flowering the land with lush life. After 60 years of proliferation, Puerto Rican forests became areas where native trees could blossom once again–alongside invasive trees. Without the aid of two alien species, Puerto Rican forests would not have reached the levels of biodiversity and restoration they have today. Invasive plants have become vital elements to a sustainable ecosystem. Some have become so integrated that native species are relying on them more than native counterparts. In a study done by Vila et. al in 2009, pollinators were seen to depend significantly higher on alien plants rather than native ones. Alien plants can play central roles in that they have long evolved with native species, supporting their place in foreign territory. Environments have become harmonious in the treatment of both invasive and native plants, with most native plants being once invasive. Simply treating them as interchangeable parts would result in the collapse of the chain of life. As conservation biologist David Richardson stated, “removing alien species just because they are alien is futile”.
A blind eye leads to the fallacy that invasive plants present a paucity (if any) of beneficial characteristics but this belief is shrouded by ivy: It is just not true… Rapid growth, successful on marginal land, and resistant to diseases and pests: Invasive plants impeccably fit the description as an ideal biofuel crop. With the support of using invasive plants as a source of alternative energy, profits can be sustained from what is considered a “nuisance.” Invasive plant biofuel would also solve conflicts with using food crop combustibles. Stricken by economic stress, soaring food price inflations, and food crises, the campaign between food and fuel has been raging for resolution. A 40% increase in food prices due to recent diversions of crops to fuel was recorded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2007. Seeking alternative energy cultivating-potential in invasive plants would support the movement to non-food crop combustibles in addition to higher biofuel production. A “white-list” of invasive energy plants bulleted 25 species with high potential for biofuel use, proving non-native plants can provide a large compilation of biomass for use. One of the most notorious high-risk invasive plant species, kudzu, has been discovered with the ability to produce both bioethanol and biodiesel. These backyard pests have the capability to fuel our sources of transportation.
Some argue that taking advantage of alternative energy cultivation in invasive plants would cause more pain than gain. Supposedly, by allowing producers to grow invasive plants for fuel, there would be too much risk for a significant plant catastrophe. This is highly unlikely to prevail as regulations are already strict for invasive plants. Alien plants with low risk and high potentials such as field mustard or vetiver grass can reduce risks of plant “outbreaks”. Furthermore, efforts are already advancing in alien biofuel and to much success. The EPA approved of two invasive plant species to be used as biofuel: the giant reed and Napier grass. This opportunity can translate a field of vine into an aggressive aggregation of cash and fuel. For example, an acre of soybean crops produces 57 gallons of biodiesel, equivocating to $1,172,000,000 of revenue every year. In hindsight, a highly aggressive invasive plant such as kudzu would bring in an exponentially higher amount of revenue, taking into account its extremely rapid growth and success on marginal land.
In undertakings to eradicate invasive plants, fruitless expenditures are made in the process. These attempts are unsuccessful as managers and companies find the plant they “took care of” ended up growing back anyway. Costly failures are the epitome of invasive plant eradication, with states spending millions of dollars annually to rid of the same plants every year. According to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, $5 billion dollars is spent each year trying to control invasive plant species. These pricey trials can also take play in environmental conflicts. In the southwestern United States, the aggressive distribution of invasive tamarisk trees raised concerns for conservationists. In an endeavor to remove the “intruder”, millions of dollars were spent, but efforts ceased when they discovered the removal of the tamarisks would also present the riddance of an endangered native bird. This event only ended up in a squandering of money because of the assumption that the trees were harmful. The stigma for invasive plants to be inherently harmful not only forces naive expenditures but misuses labor. An acre of invasive plant removal requires 145 hours of manual labor and a staggering $1,742 in control cost. Relocating funding from invasive plant removal to invasive plant biofuel could prove to be profitable both economically and environmentally. The 7,400,000 acres that invasive plants carpet could yield 421,800,000 gallons of biofuel every year, amounting to large quantities of revenue (without considering the accelerated growth of invasive plants). Furthermore, not only is the price tag rather unpleasant, but the money is drained from tax dollars. Tomas Carlo, professor of biology at Penn State, spoke, “while eliminating an invasive species could result in harm to the newly formed balance of an ecosystem, large-scale attempts to remove species also could be a waste of time and tax dollars”.
Invasive plants are left aloft with the assumption of being naturally threatening. As a result, billions of dollars are spent each year to eliminate non-native plants. Efforts to eradicate invasive plants are costly and unsuccessful. In actuality, they benefit native ecosystems and could profit as an alternative energy source. Tomas Carlo, a biologist at Penn State spoke: “Nature is in a constant state of flux, always shifting and readjusting as new relationships form between species, and not all of these relationships are bad just because they are novel or created by humans”. Misunderstanding these cloaked heroes prevents us from greeting possibility and constructive contingency.
Ultimately, are we responding to undeniable threats of nature, or to cultural perceptions? The concept of invasive plants is being consumed by the vine known as “scientific bias”, chance-less for positive movements. In the end, invasive plants could conclusively restore native ecosystems and vegetate our future.
Beck, G. (n.d.). Economics of Invasive Weed Control: Chemical, Manual/ Physical/Fire, Biological, and Doing Nothing. Invasive Plant Management Technical Webinar Series, 1-8.
Gleditsch J., Carlo T., (2014). Living with Aliens: Effects of Invasive Shrub Honeysuckles on Avian Nesting. PLoS ONE, 9(9), 1-8.
Sage, R., Coiner, H., Way, D., Runion, G., Prior, S., Torbert, H., Sicher, R., Ziska, L. (2008).Kudzu [Pueraria montana (Lour.) Merr. Variety lobata. Elsevier, 33, 57-61.
Quinn, L., Gordon, D., Glaser, A., Lieurance, D., Flory, S. (2015). Bioenergy Feedstocks at Low Risk for Invasion in the USA: a “White List” Approach. BioEnergy Research. 8(2), 471-481.
Vila, M., Bartomeus, I., Dietzsch, A., Petanidou, T., Steffen-Dewenter, I., Stout, J., Tscheulin, T. (2009). Invasive plant integration into native plant–pollinator networks across Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 276, 3887-3893.
Zimmer, C. (2011). Alien Species Reconsidered: Finding a Value in Non-Natives. Retrieved from http://e360.yale.edu/feature/alien_species_reconsidered_finding_a_value_in_non-natives/2373/