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Invasive Plants: Killing Our Ecosystems

Posted on: January 4, 2018

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, our country spends close to 120 billion annually on the control and containment of invasive species. Of that, about 25 billion is spent specifically on noxious plants. Here in Illinois, hundreds of aggressive alien plants have been accidentally or intentionally introduced that cause devastating loss to agriculture and natural areas.

In our local ecosystems, that loss is hard to measure. To most of us, our green spaces look pretty good. But if you have some decent plant identification skills, it is hard not to become discouraged. Just like in highly diverse rainforests, we have plants that exist nowhere else on the planet. Finding them now though is a real challenge. A big reason is invasive plants.

Our wooded areas are choked with invasive shrubs like common buckthorn and bush honeysuckle species. The shaded floor is covered with garlic mustard and escaped ground ivy. Our fields are filled with Eurasian weeds like thistle, teasel, Queen Anne’s lace and burdock. Wetlands are covered in narrow-leaved cattail, reed canary grass and common reed. And it isn’t just plants that are affected.

Here is an example: say a local wetland has a healthy population of a plant called cinnamon willow herb. This one species supports local insects – five types of beetles, several species of true bugs, a cute little yellow ant, two types of flies and three different sweat bees. These are just the associates that are known. Most plant/insect interactions are still undocumented. If the willow herb population is taken over by invasive reed canary grass, those insects have to look elsewhere for food – often this is their only host plant. Then, the birds that rely on those insects may not find the sustenance they need. Those that dine on birds, eggs or nestlings may now feel the impact. It isn’t just plants that are affected.

WHAT WE DO: Our Park District, along with other land managing agencies like the Village, county Forest Preserve Districts, and others spend the majority of their time working to control invasive plants. Sure, we much prefer doing the feel good things like planting trees and spreading native grasses and flower seeds. But in reality, killing plants that have taken over habitats and have eliminated the conservative native species is what we are charged with. Unfortunately, there is not enough staff to get these green beasts under control.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Take control in your yard. Learn to identify some of the common invaders and control them. Many of these big problem plants in our ecosystems are due to invasions from neighboring properties. If a robin dines on your honeysuckle berries, flies over a preserve and eliminates their seedy load, a new population of invasive honeysuckle will grow unwittingly known to you. Another way you can help is by volunteering for these agencies. All have workdays where volunteers can help control of the invading plants. If you’d like to learn more about volunteer opportunities related to restoring ecosystems, please contact Renae at rfrigo@gepark.org.

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