Creating a sense of place

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?

9 thoughts on “Creating a sense of place”

  1. “Washington, my home…wherever I may roam…this is my land, my native land..
    .Washington, my home.” And so on. Yes, I’m a native Washingtonian too and I agree wtih Bert that the plant selection for this project was poor. But the other, lesser known problem is pulling up Scots broom rather than cutting it and treating the cut end with Roundup. Some research at UW demonstrated that the latter method is much less destructive to soil structure and biota than pulling. Something to keep in mind, especially if you’re working on sloped areas where erosion is likely.

  2. I’m right with you on the Western Red Cedar, but native or not, Big Leaf Maples are kind of a weed. Still, something better than tulip polar should have been chosen. Vine Maples perhaps.

  3. My native home was S. CA and a beautiful coastal canyon called Topanga. I wasn’t actually born there, but moved to it when I was 11- but that’s where I bonded to the landscape. I frequently dream of that kingdom of chapperel and live oaks and the land of ones dreams is truly home. I think I understand a plantperson’s bond to a specific landscape and the plants that comprise it.

    However, I bonded to this land back in the early ’60s before the public had much awareness of what was native and what was invasive. There were many plants that “didn’t belong” in my landscape but for me all of them were equally valid.

    My father kept the property there and as awareness changed the invasives were gradually rooted out, including a plant he called “Spanish broom” but that we originally called Scotch.

    I would feel sorry for the kids who tried pulling out anything with roots like this plant out of the ground. Their hands would be raw before they succeeded in uprooting a single one. These plants could survive a year without rain and had roots of a depth I can only guess.

  4. I see a global trend emerging here. Cytisus scoparius is a terrible weed here in south eastern Australia. As is its common-name cousin Monpellier Broom (Genista monspessulana. Yet these species are still being sold in retail nurseries all over the country.
    I work in restorative ecology and the amount of Scotch broom I’ve hand pulled in the last year is staggering. Staggering still is thinking about the years’ of worth of seed that has been shed into the seedbank that is yet to germinate. Seed which may persist in the soil of indigenous seed banks for 60 years or more. It’s a frightening prospect.
    In an indigenous grassland that was infested with broom we tested a method of control that has been successful thus far (we think), but it will take another five to ten years to see if it’s had a significant effect on broom in the future. We used fire as a disturbance regime in an attempt to get a mass germination event of the broom seedbank in the soil. We hand pulled all the broom first, waited two months, then burnt the whole site. The amount of broom that came up afterwards was staggering. But, growing faster than the indigenous plants in the grassland, we were able to combine hand-pulling and spraying to rid the entire site of the first germination event of broom over the whole site. This was two years ago. The result has been a second year that has seen only a quarter as much broom return as was estimated to exist on the site initially.
    I suspect I’ve rambled so I’ll now simply echo the call from my North American cousins: Ban broom! Ban it now!

  5. Thanks for the comment, Linda. I agree, many of these invasive ‘weed pulling parties’ are more feed-good/publicity events whereas making a serious dent will require power equipment and some serious herbicides. Whenever I hear ‘eradication’ I think of failed attempts to eradicate Ribes to control white pine blister rust and our failed attempt to eradicate emerald ash borer in the Midwest. I wonder, how many examples are there of successful eradication of invasives on a broad scale?

  6. I remember pulling Scot’s Broom as a fourth grader, and as Alan pointed out, at the end of the day our hands were raw, and I’m not sure we actually pulled up the roots of a single plant. It was still a very educational day, and one of the few I clearly remember from the 4th grade. The next day we planted doug firs and western hemlocks in the pouring rain on a muddy slope, and that was probably the most fun day I ever had in school.

  7. Scotch broom is still sold in the east because it just doesn’t spread here. Seriously. It dies out after about 5 years. Very short lived.

      1. But if you take that standard too far, then you honestly can’t plant ANYTHING that not native because ANYTHING could potentially have a freak mutation or a fluke in genetic drift or cross pollination and go bonkers. The question of having a history of being well-behaved is always WHERE. Even kudzu is well-behaved when it’s at home. And some of our native plants are very invasive in Europe. So does that mean we shouldn’t grow natives that are invasive in Europe here? Or maybe don’t grow them anywhere outside of their exact native ranges here? None of that makes sense.

        I live in the Mid-Atlantic now. Here, we have more in common with the Yunnan province of China and a great deal of Japan than we do with Southern California, Texas, the entire Southwest, Alaska, etc. Stuff from Japan and China tends to have a higher probability of becoming invasive, so that’s something to pay attention to. On the reverse, you can’t hardly keep anything from South Africa alive–S. African alpine gardens are for true masochists. In high-altitude New Mexico, it’s stuff from alpine South Africa and parts of Russia that tend to be invasive.

        We all get a little hinky seeing things that are scary in our homes being treated with complete nonchalance elsewhere. I have gut reactions to a number of things that are troublesome in my home but are very, very marginally hardy here–like, “that really looks stupid to me” kind of reactions. But it’s not stupid in places where these things don’t do well.

        The flip side of this fear is the fact that nurseries spend millions and millions trying to increase the vigor of certain popular plants beyond their “happy zones” and typically only have incremental and marginal successes. Their jobs would be much easier if a plant being stupidly easy to grow in one place made it more likely to be easy to grow outside of that range.

        There is always a risk, but making recommendations for ALL habitats based on nothing more than its behavior in a certain habitat or a few habitats isn’t really the best approach.

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