Confessions of an exotic invasive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about permanence and passage lately.  In a relatively short time span, I’ve experienced the deaths of an employer-mentor, a friend-mentor, and two relative-mentors.


My personal time has been spent thinking about where they came from, how they impacted me, and how I can carry some of those lessons forward.


My professional time has been spent thinking a lot about native plants, ecosystem services, and how everyone, because we all shape the landscape in some way, makes choices that have an impact.


Here’s where those two trains of thought intersect.


My entire family is full of transplants.  My mother’s Russian father landed in America via a circuitous route, and here he met and married my Polish grandmother, who lost her mother and her home and had to start over.  My father’s parents came from a small Romanian village, with my grandfather jumping ship after working as a stoker on a steamship’s transatlantic voyage and managing to bring the rest of his family here after a few years of living without them.

Zisu and Hava my great-grandparents Zissu and Hava, Moinesti, Romania, c. 1895


They all were uprooted, and needed to learn how to make their way with a new language, a new way of being.  Their worlds intersected when they landed here, and they formed new unions, assimilating in many ways but retaining some of their cultural background.  Their siblings, and everyone’s offspring, did the same, resulting in a rather rapid dissemination and cross-pollination of the original gene pool, and in a need to adapt many of the customs and traditions to the new sets of circumstances they now found themselves in.


Should they have narrowed their fields to ensure their genetic purity?  Should they have remained in their original habitats so they would make the best use of the environment that evolved in tandem with them?  My answer is no.  The world, as those Eastern Europeans knew it, continued to change and they needed to be flexible and resilient to stay alive.  They cast a wider net, took chances, tested out new things, figured out what could continue and what needed to change.


Wolfgang Oehme and Kurt Bluemel, two luminaries the horticultural world has recently lost, came to the US from Europe in the middle of last century.  They brought new ideas, fresh eyes, and spearheaded some rapid and exciting changes in our landscape designs and plant materials.  Those changes are now a solid part of American garden culture.  Yet those men: THEY were exotic invasives, and I’m betting most of you reading this are, too.  Here we all are, humans cross-breeding within our species and cultivating new varieties, selecting new food sources and habitats and possibly even outcompeting some of existing population.  Transportation of ideas and materials between ecosystems happens almost effortlessly, on a global scale, and there really is no going back.


What does this mean to my thinking about native plants?  That it would do us a disservice to exclude the original-ecosystem-impure, because many of them have adapted, and assimilated, and created a new native: one that makes creative use of that which was not theirs for eons, but has become theirs over a short time.  The ones who have created a gentle niche in the ever-evolving system, who play well with others, who provide benefit back to their new-ish communities, can be made welcome.  The networks, just like us with our mentors, will suffer loss and maybe even setbacks, but can emerge in new form, with some of the markers from the old ways transformed into the ecosystems of the future.


Wolfgang threw his head back and laughed with delight when I told him that he was an exotic invasive.  He told me that I wasn’t exotic or invasive, but instead he’d call me an introduced inoffensive.

DSCN0082 - Version 2 planting day, Millbrook, NY, 2005

Which one are you?


-Naomi Brooks


  1. Thanks Naomi for the thoughtful piece. It’s true- we’re all moving-evolving- restless and adaptive. That’s not to say that locally adapted natives carefully chosen won’t be better for wildlife- they will be- but it’s critical to face the situation we’re in clearly- the planet is over run with plants, critters, humans- sheesh- even carbon! out of place and in flux. The struggle for purity is as lost as it was for your grandparents- so let’s move from where we are in the direction of diverse, productive and regenerative cultures, landscapes and lives.

  2. Mark G · · Reply

    I’ve been reading some stuff along the same lines of thought about what the “invasives” are doing / providing in terms of ecological services… One book is ‘Invasive Plant Medicine’ by Timothy Lee Scott. The other ‘Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast’ by Peter Del Tredici.

    Of related interest (concern) is how quickly can a non-indigenous species adapt into a more cooperative exchange with other (native) species of flora & fauna… What window of time should be used for that judgement? Can it adapt within an existing ecotone without excessive disruption? Can a new homeostasis be found, and does it provide adaptive benefits?

  3. […] Perovskia atriplicifolia– Russian Sage […]

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