Invasives?

Of Women and Wildflowers

Fragrant Dame’s Rocket from my garden

 Women and plants have been in relationship since the dawn of humankind. Women were the Seed keepers. Women created agriculture. Women learned what herbs to use for healing. Women noticed wildflowers, loved them, grew them and painted them, created poems about them. Some women and plants still share a deep bond, and as an herbalist I am one of these women. My relationship with wildflowers stretches back to the first word I ever spoke – “cups” for the wild buttercups I loved and gathered as a toddler.  

Recently, I joined a wildflower identification site online because wild flowers are so dear to my heart. Every spring I am drawn into the forest glades to meet my diminutive friends that burst unbidden, unfurling from moisture laden rotting leaves. So many are fragrant!

 With the summer solstice on the horizon and abnormally high temperatures, we are living a withering drought, and my intrepid little wildflowers are fading, their annual cycle completed earlier than usual. Even in a good year this wildflower season is never long enough for me.

 During the 40 years I have lived here I have collected or rescued many wildflowers bringing them home to this little sanctuary that is tucked away in the woods with a brook running through the entire property. I have rarely lost a wildflower that I dug in the wild.

Because Maine is such a diverse state with respect to its microclimates, I am deeply curious as to where other wildflowers might be growing, as well as wanting to see/learn about those I don’t know, so I anticipated exciting new information coming my way when I joined this online group.

What a disappointment. The first time I was on the site I discovered to my dismay that someone put up a picture asking for identification/information and the responses were overwhelmingly negative because this little cluster of flower heads was considered to be an “invasive.” I was shocked. The offender was one of my favorite wildflowers, some call Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), similar in appearance to an early phlox with a pleasing fragrance. I had painstakingly dug and replanted these pink to lavender clusters from an abandoned house, and thirty years later had a lovely ring of them around my cherry tree. Hardly invasive. I knew a few old farmhouses who still kept these old fashioned flowers around, but although I have traveled extensively through Maine I have never seen an area that was invaded by this delicate flower that was introduced from Europe a few hundred years ago, and more recently was sold as part of wild seed packets (!).

 According to the official “expert” plant site, Maine.gov, one has to remove this ‘monster’ by pulling it up by the roots and then using special herbicides to eradicate it although it gravitates towards wetland areas – the one place no herbicide should ever be used. What nonsense. These are shallow rooted plants and easily removed. And by the way, herbicides were condemned by Rachel Carson 60 years ago in Silent Spring. Doesn’t anyone remember?

Still thinking that I might have ‘overacted’ because I love this flower, I continued reading what people – almost all were women – were saying about other wildflowers for about a week. A distinct pattern emerged. Some excited newcomer would be thrilled with a wildflower that she found only to discover it was an invasive that had to be removed. A lecture followed and then Maine. gov. was cited as the definitive source.

What constitutes an invasive according to Maine’s government ‘experts’ I wondered, so I went to their site.

“In Maine a plant is considered invasive if it:

  1. is not native to Maine
  2. has spread (or has the potential to spread) into minimally managed plant communities (habitats)
  3. causes economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations that are dominant or disruptive to native species

Invasive plants are a direct threat to what we value about Maine’s natural and working (working???) landscapes. The aggressive growth of invasive plants increases costs for agriculture ( ie agribusiness), can affect forest regeneration, threatens our recreational experiences (huh?), and reduces the value of habitats for mammals, birds and pollinators. Invasive species are the second-greatest threat to global biodiversity after loss of habitat (not true). Invading plants out compete native species by hogging sunlight, water, nutrients, and space. They change animal habitat by eliminating native foods, altering cover, and destroying nesting opportunities.”

 Next, I checked to see what plants the government considered to be invasive in Maine. After reading through the list of land plants – about 150 species (the aquatic list was equally long) I felt fury. According to this source most of the wildflowers and some trees that thrived here were considered invasive! It was true that a minority of the plants cited were truly invasive, but none of them graced this property. Because I am very knowledgeable about wild plants in general, I knew the identity of most of the problematic (or potentially problematic) land plants. But I just couldn’t get over that so many of my delicate wildflower friends were on the list. Healing herbs of all kinds, wild roses, lupine, clover, yellow iris, my beloved forget – me – nots. None of these plants were invasive; I knew this from direct personal experience. I decided then that many people seem to be confused about what healthy plants do quite naturally. “They don’t behave themselves” as one woman quipped, as if nature was supposed to behave according to human standards. What I did know was that with care and attention and the right soil natural plants will thrive and eventually spread in any area that suited them.

But what really struck me forcibly was the realization that the women were intent on perpetuating patriarchy with its rules, and anyone that deviated from the ‘Great Father’s’ words (Maine.gov), like me, was immediately condemned as a heretic. My objections were met with outright hostility.

More disturbing was the idea that ANY plant that wasn’t ‘native’ to Maine was a threat. This included many herbs that continue to be gathered and used in healing like elderberry that I wild craft, prepare as a tincture, and use daily.

I also wondered if any of these women thought about the flowers they purchased at local greenhouses. The plants sold in these places are genetically engineered and it’s almost impossible to find any that are native. Most disturbing, most of these plants have lost their ability to attract pollinators or to reproduce. I could argue convincingly that these plants aren’t even ‘real’ anymore. Most ‘behave’ well though, provide brilliant color, and conveniently die off after a few years so they must be replaced.

It also occurred to me that we treat many people the way we treat plants ‘from away’. For example, if you are white and Christian, ‘born and bred’ in Maine (or anywhere else in this country) you are native.  Really? I guess people forget that their ancestors came from Europe like some of the offending plants, with one difference. The plants did not kill off the Original Peoples of this continent.

To extrapolate further, the experts make a definitive point that foreigners are potentially dangerous and ready to infiltrate the dominant culture in nefarious ways. And that if allowed to thrive, these others might infiltrate and destabilize the native population. No room for diversity here. It’s disruptive.

Needless to say I have abandoned this online site. It is depressing to see that patriarchy even infiltrates wildflower sites with women perpetuating a system that is hopelessly destructive. Every attempt I made to present a ‘both and’ argument around discernment when it comes to wildflowers was stonewalled. No one got it.

And if you have Native American roots as I do you can’t help but be aware of the irony.

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