Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is a "native"?

You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

Today officially launches my seventh decade as an amateur naturalist, and the Web dropped Whitman’s quote on me as my reminder for the day. Thank you, Lord!

I have been in nature, observing nature for 60 years so far. Only in the last four years or so have I pursued nature as an avocation and just this past year that I have earned a fraction of a living at it. And while I do make a few bucks working with nature to teach others about nature, I refuse to surrender my amateur naturalist status and leave the ranks of giants like Darwin, Whitman, Thoreau and Muir.

Certain dangers are inherent in close observation and study of what goes on in the natural world. Chief among these (on my list, at least) is nitpicking; getting too hung up on scientific classifications, definitions and nomenclatures. I know Guy Here is a male ruby-throat hummingbird simply because he presented his red throat patch when he visited our porch feeder. Do I need to know his proper name is Archilochus colubris to appreciate his behavior as he camps out in our yard, defending “his” feeders against all male (no, he doesn’t chase away females) comers? No, I don’t. In fact, I had to Google “ruby-throat” to get Guy’s Latin name for this citation.

Like Willie said, “What’s in a name?”

But it goes deeper than that. Down at the nature center, our mission is closely tied to preserving the ecosystems on our 15 acres. Most of the site is river bottom wetland inhabited by cottonwoods, buckthorn, pecan, sugarberry, soapberry, rough-leaf dogwood, green briar and Japanese honeysuckle. Of those eight species, one is a foreign invasive introduced into the region long before there was a nature center.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), in fact, ranks high on Texas’ list of public enemy plant species because it is such a highly aggressive, invasive vine that left unchecked will take over everything in its way. Lonicera was introduced into the United States from Asia as an ornamental vine, and its popularity helped spread it across the country where it has naturalized in many areas.

Strictly speaking, then, all Japanese honeysuckle should be removed from the nature center as a non-native invader, right? Personally, I think so. Yet our resident honeysuckle has its fans who would be more than a little upset if the plant was totally wiped out. Many of those same folks would much rather I remove the prolific poison ivy that flourishes in our woods, even though poison ivy is native to our ecosystem.

So the debate becomes what is “native” and what is not “native”? The immigration issue does not apply exclusively to foreign nationals of the human species. Plants, like people, may become naturalized citizens, but it often takes more than an official status or designation to make them welcome.

When I was first invited to join the staff down at the nature center, one of my goals was to eliminate non-native honeysuckle (yes, Virginia, there is a native species, coral honeysuckle) from our acreage, and to my mind Lonicera is still the kudzu of North Texas. Today, however, I am more inclined to cut it back to the bordering neighborhood to the west, allowing it to remain on our fences as a specimen of what NOT to plant in your yard!
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