Jessie Raymond: Some plants only seem harmless

I’m starting to think I’m too naïve to be a gardener. I tend to assume that whatever flowers I find growing are meant to be here, but it turns out there are plenty of nonnative plants that have moved to Vermont and now think they own the place.

I thought I was more savvy. I mean, I’m at least aware of Japanese knotweed; an aggressive patch of it is squatting on the edge of our yard. I know of only one surefire method of eradicating it, but the garden center refuses to carry plastic explosives, so for now I have to tolerate it.

In recent years, I’ve been shaking my fist at it. Surprisingly, shaking your fist at knotweed is no less effective than digging it up or smothering it, since neither fazes it. I don’t do Roundup, but I know if I tried it, the stalks would guzzle it like cheap beer, belch and then, in a show of defiance, grow six inches in the next hour.

The knotweed is bad enough. But it’s not the only interloper. I also have a healthy crop of dame’s rocket scattered all over. It grows in what my wildflower guide calls “disturbed areas,” a hurtful — though not inaccurate — way to describe our property. It has pretty pink or white flowers and smells nice, so I let it grow.

But it’s an invasive species. And now I’ve found out I’m harboring others.

Last week, in the small flower bed next to the chicken coop, I noticed an unfamiliar plant. This is nothing unusual; in the fall I often acquire perennials that I’m sure I’ll remember but never do.

A few days later, the plant was sporting tiny clusters of unremarkable white blossoms. I figured it probably was some sort of weed, but if it could justify itself as a bee-friendly wildflower, I might be inclined to leave it alone.

I went looking online and landed on a website that had sirens blaring and lights flashing. “Warning!” the site said. “This is garlic mustard. Highly invasive, it increases fungal pathogen loads in the soil (harmful to trees) and has been known to slash people’s tires while they sleep.”

I hurried outside and pulled the plant, pouring concrete over the spot where I had found it. (According to my research, it will come back anyway.)

But that wasn’t all.

Just two days later, far down at the back of our land next to the pond, I came upon a lovely shrub with grayish leaves. Its yellowish-white blossoms smelled like heaven and were covered in bees. Who doesn’t love a pollinator-friendly bush? I wanted to transplant an offshoot up near the house,  but first I needed to know what I had.

This time, I tried one of those online guides that pose a series of questions to help you ID your plant.

The guide started out easy, asking the height of the plant and the region in which it was growing. But then it turned cryptic. “Are the flowers (a) amalgamated or (b) syncopated?”

Hesitating, I selected (a), to which it responded, “Good. Now choose the leaf type: (a) apoplectic, (b) fiduciary or (c) alternately misappropriated with liminal perseverations.” And so on.

I went through the steps, mostly guessing and, at times, taking offense (how dare it make inferences about my petioles!). Finally, it gave me the result: “Congratulations. You have a date palm!”

I was almost sure this was incorrect.

In the end, I took a picture of one of the branches and uploaded it to Google image search. I got an instant match, along with the dreaded sirens and lights. The description said, “Danger! This is Elaeagnus umbellata, or autumn olive. It chokes out beneficial native plants and makes UVM Extension specialists cry.”

When will I learn? What else have I been tolerating, even propagating, not knowing I’m contributing to a hostile takeover of Vermont’s landscape?

I checked the state’s invasive plants website and wished I hadn’t; it looked like a photo collage of our yard.

That shook me. So I’ve decided that until I learn to be more discerning about what I allow to grow, I should take a break from gardening.

I’m OK with that. Now I’ll have more time for my other interests, such as caring for my flourishing colony of pet zebra mussels.

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