ALIEN Invaders BY MELISSA SUT TON-SENG
N O N - N A T I V E P L A N T S C A N M O R P H F R O M M A R V E L O U S T O M O N S T R O U S
AT THE 1876 WORLD’S FAIR CENTENNIAL EXHIBITION IN PHILADELPHIA,
the American public was introduced to the telephone, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, the
steam-powered monorail, and bananas. Also on display was an ornamental plant with
bright purple flowers and broad, dark green leaves. Fairgoers marveled at its amazing
rate of growth — up to a foot a day.
Kudzu HAD COME TO AMERICA.
Brought from Japan and promoted as a “wonder vine,” kudzu for years remained
somewhat of a novelty, an ornamental plant with sweet-smelling blossoms sometimes
grown to shade patios and courtyards. Then came the
drought, dust storms, and infrastructure expansion of
the 1930s and ’40s. Kudzu was promoted as a cure-all
for erosion, soil depletion, and lack of livestock feed.
Thus “the green scourge” began its invasion of the
Less than 100 years later, kudzu is everywhere, or
at least it appears that way. Kudzu flourishes best in
the areas we see most often from our cars — roadsides,
abandoned structures, and the edges of forests — but
it grows poorly in shaded spots and is beaten back by foraging animals. In recent years,
an insect known as the kudzu bug found its way here from Japan and is helping keep the
vines in check.
As it turns out, the green scourge is something of a red herring. Yes, kudzu is invasive,
can be detrimental to native species, and ought to be eradicated whenever possible. Still,
it’s not the worst invader among us.
Just as kudzu was once sold as an ornamental plant and then promoted as an agricul-tural
panacea, a significant number of other non-native species have been introduced in
Southeastern North Carolina, many of them doing more damage than kudzu ever has.
What makes a
An invasive plant is any species
not originally from a region that,
once introduced, grows vigorously,
outcompetes other plants in the area,
and is difficult to control. They cause
damage to the local ecosystem,
economy and/or human health.
Not every frustrating plant is an
invasive species, and not every spe-cies
introduced to an area becomes
invasive. Vines like Virginia creeper
and poison ivy are aggressive and
annoying, but they are native to
North Carolina and serve a purpose
in our ecosystem. The evergreen aza-leas
for which Wilmington is so well
known originated in Japan, but unlike
kudzu they aren’t invasive and can be
recommended for landscaping with-out
concerns about negative impacts
on the local ecosystem.
Non-native plants have different
impacts in different ecosystems.
Originally from China, butterfly bush
(Buddleja davidii, not to be con-fused
with native butterfly weed,
Ascelepias tuberosa) is an invasive
species in the Pacific Northwest but
is not problematic here. There are,
however, several popular plant spe-cies
that, while beautiful, present a
threat to native plant and animal life
in North Carolina.