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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Weed? Alien? Invasive? Malignant?

Definitions can change the way we see the world – and how we act.

What is a Weed?

Weeds in nature are valuable plants that deserve respect. Of course, the ecological definition of “weed” is different from the traditional gardener’s definition.

A weed patch in the ecosystem often functions like a scab on a mild wound that you or I might suffer. Weeds are an ecosystem’s response to hurt, degradation, or disturbance. In healthy ecosystems, weeds make up the scab that helps the wound heal. They prevent erosion and start a succession process that historically ended up with the conservative plant species that were there before the wound.

Weeds are often annual or biennial. Classic prairie weeds include black-eyed Susan, ragweed, and common evening primrose. These days, the “healing scab” species may also include aliens like wild carrot and bull thistle. These “alien” species are long naturalized to North America and function like the native weeds. They should not be seen as problem species. A true weed goes away with time (and doesn’t even leave a scar if the disturbance is mild).

Many people worry needlessly (and sometimes counterproductively) about weeds in restoration areas. Relax. Welcome them. Don’t believe the people who say, “Oh, yes, carrot is a problem. I’ve seen it be very invasive.” No they haven’t. They’ve seen it become very common. That’s just a phase, and a step forward for the ecosystem. Relax. You have more important things to do. Weed species are easily outcompeted by more conservative species within a few years – if conservative plants are nearby (or have been inter-seeded).

Spraying herbicide on wild carrot or bull thistle may kill it. But that same herbicide will also likely kill the desirable young plants that would otherwise have out-competed the weeds. In response to herbicide, the same weeds – or possibly more damaging invasives – may well fill the herbicide-created void, instead of the young native plant that otherwise would have been thriving in a year or three. (Of course, in a demonstration area or wild garden, a person may choose to pull unsightly weeds (or allergy-provoking ragweeds) without waiting years for succession.)

What is Invasive?

In the early days of ecosystem restoration, we often used the word “alien” as the standard word to describe species that degraded ecosystems. At first, that word seemed to communicate well, as many people quickly supported the need for remedies when it was used. “Alien” was partly accurate, since most of the problem species then recognized were from other countries. Many members of the general public (who were basically too busy or not interested enough in ecosystems to spend a lot of time learning about problem plants) seemed to feel like they understood what we were talking about through the metaphor that mixed the fun fear of space aliens with concern about “outsiders.” 

But the word alien failed for two reasons. The first was that some people increasingly used it as an opportunity to argue politics. Attempts at scientific discussion were regularly hampered by unrelated Republican-Democrat arguments, especially as America divided over the “undocumented.”

More importantly, it became clear the “native” vs. “alien” wasn’t really the issue. Most non-native species were not a problem. And, in the modern context, many native species were very much so. Unburned prairies died in the shade of native gray dogwood or green ash as surely as they would have from the shade of alien buckthorn.

Many of us started using the words “invader” and “invasive” for what we once called “weeds” or “aliens.” This approach worked better. It described the real problem better (but not well enough?).

I remember reviewing a draft policy of the Carter administration that would discourage planting non-natives and encourage natives in government projects. I commented that “invasive” was a better word, and explained why. When the official policy was published, “alien” was edited out and “invasive” replaced it. Does our political system actually work!?! Perhaps many people made that recommendation. The new language also continued in some later administrations’ policies.

And, yet, while a great improvement, “invasive” was not really quite the right word.

In savannas, although gray dogwood/box elder/sumac could indeed degrade the system in the absence of fire, they did not “invade” from outside. They were natural components that could become lethal to the basic ecosystem under some conditions. There’s a parallel with animals. Zoologists wondered why some species of turtles, snakes, and ground-nesting birds were disappearing from small preserves. It turned out that overabundant meso-predators (like raccoons and opossums) were seriously depleting the natural diversity of the ecosystems they’d long been part of – in the absence of large predators (like wolves, that keep raccoon numbers in balance).

I tried to recommend using “in balance” and “out of balance,” but many people found the “balance of nature” concept “out of date” and misleadingly static.

Benign and Malignant

Some of us have begun to compare the health of the ecosystem to the health of the human body. It’s a fairly easy model for most people to understand.

In this metaphor, the problem species is like disease bacteria or cancer cell. Just as a perfectly respectable cell from my own body can start multiplying uncontrollably and kill me, just so, a formerly “in balance” member of an ecosystem can reproduce out-of-control and cause the loss of most species. That’s ill health, from a natural community perspective.

In the absence of fire, maples can invade a bur oak woods and wipe out most of the natural diversity of animals and plants. Okay – it seems fair to call that maple an invader or “invasive” in that scenario. But box elders, ash, and cherry can do it too. When “in balance,” they can be constituents of oak woodland. Natural fire keeps them in check. But in the absence of fire, those species can create a malignancy of shade. How should we refer to them in that case? They didn’t invade. Perhaps “out of balance” and “malignant” are the best words our language has.

Native white-tailed deer can erase most species of wildflowers, shrubs and saplings from a savanna or woodland; they can also seriously deplete many bird species in this process. They’re ‘non-invasive’ beautiful animals and have rights, but they also may have a malignant impact in the absence of equally admirable predators.

Conservation requires public support. Thus, we need clear language to describe problems and solutions. Most people care about nature but have only so much time (or inclination) to study intensively. Those few of us who enjoy the detail and the mission will want to use the words that will best communicate to the many who rightly take their cues from us.  


  1. I think the restoration community puts too much emphasis on having one all embracing label for species that require control efforts. I think we do not need to have a label to fits all problem species. Instead, I think the restoration community needs to explain to the public actions and the results.

    For Example

    Action: Buckthorn was introduced from Europe as an ornamental plant.
    Result: In the absence of natural predators it has dominated the ecosystem at the expense of almost all native species. Some of the cherished species that are disappearing include x, y, and z.

    Action: Removing Buckthorn
    Result: Decimated cherished native species like x, y, and z have been observed to recover.

    Action: Eliminating fire from the Savanna ecosystem which developed in the presence of this phenomenon.
    Result: The native burr oaks that invest energy into making thick bark lose out to faster growing trees like sugar maple, cherry, elm, etc.

    Action: Returning fire to a Savanna ecosystem that has not been burned in many years.
    Result: Establishment of new individuals of maple, cherry, elm, etc. is prevented but tree removal will need to occur to eliminated established individuals of these species. The result of these combined actions is restoration to a habitat structure needed for species x, y, and z.


  2. I remember during our wedding ceremony that our minister instructed to me “you will learn to understand that words matter.” At the time, I found the statement curious and figured it had to do with the fact that my fiancée (now wife of 21 years) is a journalist. Regardless of what our minister’s intent was, I have certainly learned that words do matter. While I will always struggle to find the best descriptive words to communicate my message, I can quickly recognize the power of a few well crafted words spoken or written by others. Given the fact so few people are involved with restoring our lands and our society only has the attention span for “McNews” and quick sound bites, I think Stephen is right that we need a better word for “invasives” and perhaps other aspects of ecological restoration as well.


  3. I was watching "Star Wars" and came across a word that seems to describe your problem species. You could call them "insidious." Although, I would find it hard to take anyone seriously who would describe species by using that word.