Regardless of the state of the economy, growing a plant is one of the best investments you can make.
Just like financial investments, some plants offer benefits in the short term such as yearly fruits and vegetables, attractive blooms and shelter for wildlife.
Larger plants like most trees and shrubs are also beneficial in the long term, supplying the surrounding area with food and shelter while also reinforcing and enriching the soil for perhaps hundreds of years. Even some annual plants that die off in the winter can return emboldened the following season through the seeds they leave behind.
As with all investments, choosing your plants should not be done purely on impulse. It’s a good rule of thumb to plant as many plants native to the area as possible since studies have found that a landscape functions best when it has a wide diversity of plants with at least 70 percent of them naturally occurring locally.
Even in gardens tailored to providing habitat for wildlife, it’s still acceptable to have a few exotic showpieces scattered here and there. Beware when you are choosing your foreign additions, since some plants commonly found on the shelves of commercial greenhouses are actually invasive, noxious thugs that can quickly displace native plants and disrupt the proper functioning of our ecosystems. Our forests and mountainsides are already dotted with an abundance of invasive plants. Many of these were originally planted by gardeners with an unfortunate lack of foresight.
The large, striped Chinese silver grass is a common sight in and around Asheville, probably due to its use in the early gardens of the Biltmore estate. Chinese bittersweet is an introduced vine that has the power (and lack of predators) to pull down large trees in North America. Lime green young foliage and Cheeto-colored roots are the giveaways for this must-pull.
There is an American variety that is endangered, so wait for the berries to mature until yanking this foul intruder from its base. While mimosa trees scattered along the sides of the highway can offer some nice eye candy during summer drives, their abundance is a testament to this exotic’s invasive potential.
The same can be said for princess trees, which can be found throughout the area. I watched one of these trees grow for several years in a sidewalk crack while I lived in Philadelphia some years ago. Despite its spartan accommodations, the tree seemed to be getting along just fine. Unfortunately, most invasive species are equally tough once they become established in an area.
Some plant nurseries lack either the knowledge or care to inform their patrons that they sell potentially invasive plants, so I’ll make a quick list of some no-gos for our area.
Nandinas are thuggish and their berries can also be poisonous to our native birds and other berry eaters. Burning bush, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, barberry and butterfly bush are all overly noxious and should not be planted. Also, avoid Bradford pears and Asiatic wisterias. American wisteria varieties, while not quite as fragrant, are just as attractive and not invasive.
The Jackson County Sustainability Council is a great, passionate local group with a plethora of information including tips about invasive plants in the area and also native substitutes – some of which I’ll be writing about next week. Check out their Facebook page to learn more.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.