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Now the weather’s more comfortable for garden work again, I’m interested in fall plant sales — but determined to avoid invasives.

Purple loosestrife is still for sale, some places — I just found it, eight dollars a plant, at Pond Mart on the Web. How I used to love the vast stretches of it in Montezuma Wildlife Refuge along the New York Thruway on the way to my parents’ house — until I learned how destructive it is, degrading wetland habitats. Now it threatens agricultural land, too.

I’ve also had my consciousness raised about burning bush: just as much a sledgehammer as loosestrife, to other plants. Available almost everywhere, its popularity keeps the nursery industry dependent on it. Similarly we all like the pretty berries of Asian bittersweet, which carries clusters at every leaf axil, instead of just at branch tips, like the native variety it’s outcompeting. But the invader is out of balance with this ecosystem: it grows up and over everything, girdling stems, preventing photosynthesis, even pulling down and uprooting trees by the sheer weight of its mass.

Horticulturists introduced the pretty Asian honeysuckles here more than 100 years ago; now they, like bittersweet, are overwhelming native varieties. Birds like the invaders, which unfortunately are less nutritious than the natives. Not only are the Asians more aggressive, they often have longer growing periods, and the bush varieties are suspected of exuding a chemical from their roots that poisons other plants.

Japanese Barberries fascinate me. Foliage of various varieties can be green, dark red-purple, bright golden yellow, purple with a yellow margin; or speckled with pink and white — and brilliant reds in the fall. Shapes vary from spreading to upright, one quite narrow and pillar-like; height from one to five feet. They’d do well in my sandy soil, too. But this is another fast-spreading thug that forms dense thickets eliminating all other vegetation but trees. In 1875 the Arnold Arboretum first grew them here, from imported seed. Now they’re on the noxious weed list for 42 states, and illegal to sell in Canada.

Porcelainberry, related to the grape, grows fast in humid-summer climates, like ours, and smothers everything under it. But in fall it’s gorgeous, with fruit in colors from pale green to pale blue to deep blue and reddish purple. One variety has leaves splashed with white and pink. Some claim it’s less vigorous — but my Weston Nurseries catalog, while offering it, warns it too “may become a pest.”

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 24 September 2004

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