As many GP readers know I’m originally from Olympia, WA. Once a week or so I troll through the on-line version of my hometown newspaper, the Daily Olympian (“the Daily ‘O’” for short or, more commonly, “the Daily Zero”) to keep up with latest happenings back home and to see if any of my high school classmates are on their way to jail. While none of the Olympia High Class of ’78 made the news recently, my interest was piqued the other day by the headline “Saving the world – from weeds”. The article described the Earth day efforts of local grade-schoolers to eradicate Scotch broom from a local nature trail.
For those that are not familiar, Scotch broom is an exotic shrub that commonly invades disturbed areas throughout the Northwest. It’s been a problem for years and, even as a kid 40 years ago, I remember every cutbank around town covered with the nasty yellow blossoms. In doing a little trolling on the internet I was surprised (stunned is probably a better word) to learn that there are parts of the country where Scotch broom is still sold as an ornamental shrub – named cultivars and all. There are commercial cultivars of dandelion after all, so why not?
As we’ve noted here on the GP blog, there are lots of layers of complexity to the native/non-native discussion. In many cases I think native advocates have over-sold the ecological side to the argument. But the Daily O article got my dander up; not because 4th graders were pulling up Scotch broom – good riddance and keep up the good work kids – but because the Scotch broom was replaced with trees and shrubs that were all exotics in that part of the Northwest.
Native plant advocates often downplay the ‘sense of place’ argument in promoting natives. I suppose they feel the ecological arguments are based on ‘harder science’ and therefore more convincing. While it can be argued that native plants have adapted to the environment in which they evolved; it’s not always a given that the native conditions still exists, particularly in the built environment. What’s beyond argument, however, is that trees and other plants provide a connection to the natural world around us and, for lack of a better term, do give us a sense of place. From my personal experience, I have a visceral reaction to the sight of Scotch broom or English ivy in the Northwest where I’m native. Here in Michigan, on the other hand, I’m less bothered by exotics – even some that may be considered invasive. I suspect many native-born Michiganders have the opposite reaction.
I’m sure part of my connection to all things Washington stems from lessons learned in school (I still know all the lyrics to ‘Washington my Home’ and my plant collection form Mr. Chance’s high school Botany class is still somewhere in the attic of my parent’s house). Which is why I was flummoxed by the schoolkids planting tulip poplars and sequoias instead of big leaf maples and western redcedars. Wouldn’t this exercise have been a great opportunity to teach these young people about the great trees and shrubs that are native to the Northwest and to give these kids a sense of place?