David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
That’s for the birds
Many ‘bad’ plants are good for something
Sometimes it’s a fine fine line between a good plant and a bad plant, sort of like a person. And it depends on whose definition you are using.
Many will lump poison ivy into the “bad” category, though it was here long before settlers set foot in the state. Additionally, the berries are a food source for birds during the winter, which sadly can’t entirely digest the seed. That means seeds pop out the other end of the bird with a little fertilizer attached.
There are several native plants that can be annoying, aggravating or obnoxious. Yet, they are natives and probably beneficial to many of native fauna.
On the other hand, there are truly invasive plants that have put their foot in our rich soil, found it to their liking and taken off.
Sometimes uninformed folks equate exotic with invasive, saying that every exotic plant can be invasive. As we saw above, even native plants can be invasive.
But there are some exotic specimens that aren’t invasive. Ginkgo trees and peonies come to mind. Of course, it depends on the location.
It’s the exotics that can’t be contained that are the worst but therein lies another problem.
Some plants are invasive in the Pacific Northwest or the southern U.S. Think kudzu for the latter area and scotch broom and English ivy for the former. Yet in central and northern Illinois, neither is a problem.
Kudzu has reared its ugly head in southern Illinois and is progressing slowly up north. Thankfully, cold winters can keep the plant in check.
Most of the invasives are invasive due to a couple of reasons.
First, they may be distributed by birds that find the fruits tasty and deposit the seeds a la the same mechanism as poison ivy.
Many of the exotic invasive plants that are illegal to plant in Illinois gained their places on the Illinois Exotic Weed Law list due to this reason. Though it’s ironic, most were introduced by conservationists as a means of providing food for birds and wildlife.
This list includes vining or Japanese honeysuckle (sold as both a source for bird food and soil erosion control), purple loosestrife, just about all buckthorns in any shape or fashion and kudzu. Multiflora rose is also on the list.
Some that aren’t but could be included are Russian olive and autumn olive, and just about every type of non-native vining honeysuckles. While the honeysuckles smell great, the shrub germinates easily from seed and forms dense undergrowth in our woods, shading the undergrowth to the point where the native ferns, aroids and other plants die out.
These plants should probably be banned. Barring any government action, gardeners should seriously think against planting these.
Second, some of the plants may spread because they germinate before native plants and can establish in the limited space. Garlic mustard is probably the most common example. People don’t plant it like those listed above; it just got started and keeps on going.
Third, some plants produce an abundance of seeds to the point that they can’t help but become annoyances. Dandelions come to mind, but most of us don’t really think of them as all that bad. Yes, they were introduced by our well-meaning European forefathers, and can still be nutritious in several forms. And a field of dandelions far from your yard still looks great.
For those thinking of planting a tree or shrub, and it’s really the shrubs that cause the most problems, look at its fruiting ability. If it’s going to produce lots of seeds, it probably will be a problem. Winged euonymus (burning bush) and barberries are on the watch list; you can go ahead and plant them, but if you see them producing lots of seeds and berries, consider picking them off before the birds get to them.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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