By Mercedes Harris
Spring has finally sprung, and forests are coming to life again. Green leaves are starting to emerge along with the first colorful flowers of the season. But not all green is good. Odds are that much of the green you’re seeing this spring comes from non-native plants, especially in residential communities. At first glance, these “pretty” invaders may not appear destructive, but take a closer look and a different picture emerges.
Invasive species are non-native organisms whose introduction causes environmental or economic harm. An invasive herbaceous plant native to Europe and Asia called garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) spreads across North American forests causing multiple problems. Its presence inhibits the survival of butterflies, stops the growth of tree seedlings, and minimizes food sources for mammals. How does a 100 cm plant cause so much havoc?
Figure 1: Garlic mustard sightings in the United States reported to Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS)
Garlic mustard uses a variety of techniques to persist for years once introduced into new areas. Fast growth, chemical compounds that make it bitter tasting to herbivores, a cryptic rosette plant form, and hefty seed production all give garlic mustard an advantage over native wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings. Garlic mustard grows quicker and taller than native plants crowding the space on the forest floor. Its chemical compounds are toxic to native butterflies and cut off the supportive fungi networks necessary for native tree seedling growth. It has a two-year growing season consisting of a basal rosette during the first year’s growth, which can go unnoticed in this form, but over-winters and bears flashy flowers in the early spring of the second growth year.
It produces high volumes of seeds to spread across landscapes; from roadsides to backyards, pastures to wetlands, hillsides, and prairies. Left unchecked, this plant forms dense populations wherever it goes. One single plant can produce anywhere from 350-7,900 seeds!
So, what can we do about this rapidly spreading herbaceous threat? Land managers commonly use two options, and neither is perfect. First, they can apply herbicide routinely. But this comes with the risk of applying herbicide onto surrounding native plants too. Second, managers can put hours and hours of manual labor into removing existing plants by hand, but garlic mustard has a large root that, if left behind, will regenerate next year.
While land managers are still adjusting methods of garlic mustard removal and eradication, there are some things that everyone can do to limit the spread of garlic mustard and other invasive species. 1) When hiking, remain on marked trail ways to avoid spreading plant seeds. 2) In invaded areas, check shoes and clothing for seeds and remove them before leaving parks and trails. 3) Do not pick the flowers or open the seed pods as this will increase the seed dispersal range. 4) If spotted, report sightings of populations to land owners, or online invasive species detection databases such as EDDMapS.org.
About the author: Mercedes Harris is a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she received a master’s degree in environmental conservation. She’s a biologist turned plant ecologist because the zoology courses always filled up too quickly during enrollment but the plant courses turned out to be great.
EDDMapS. 2018. Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System. The University of Georgia – Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. Available online at http://www.eddmaps.org/; last accessed May 31, 2018.