Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Brooklyn Botanical Garden Book is a Good Passalong

By Ron Sullivan
Friday December 01, 2006

Joe found an interesting book over at the Mechanics’ Institute Library: a Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s “All-Region Guide,” Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants by C. Colston Burrell. The BBG puts out lots of informative short books; this one is a double-sized volume, with lots of color photographs.  

The book is a constructive move toward controlling a serious problem. You’ve probably heard or read lots of carrying-on about invasive exotics. Here in California they’re a real threat to wild places and the unique life these support, even as all wonderful diversity this is being backed over extinction’s cliff by our habits and industrial methods and our sheer numbers. In a Q-and-A preface to this book, the author cites a journal study to say, “About 42 percent of the species on the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Species are at risk primarily because of nonnative invasives.” 

Some utter nonsense gets aired when this subject comes up. Just to get past it here: No, advocating for native plants, animals, and ecosystems is not at all like racism. (Some of us have noticed that humans are all one species.) No, fostering natives in their original habitats doesn’t somehow threaten biodiversity.  

In fact, those pretty broombushes and pampas grass and cotoneasters and the others that we gardeners have introduced and allowed to invade wildlands and elbow out natives are what threatens biodiversity. The species that are being pushed out, starved, threatened—they exist nowhere else in the world. If our populations die, that’s it. Gone. Extinct. The invasives, on the other hand, have home ranges where they’re adapted and they thrive with and feed the rest of their habitats. Where they pay their taxes.  

This book was written for gardeners across the country—and, interestingly, for land managers including highway departments. The role of roads and railroads in spreading invasives is one of those odd things. Partly it’s that they’re responsible for “disturbed ground” on which so many weeds thrive; partly it’s that they’re corridors of seed distribution; partly it’s that invasives have been planted along roadsides for erosion control. 

The BBG names nearly 150 villains and where they’re invasive, and adds photographs, descriptions, and growing tips for native substitutes—often more than one for each invasive, to duplicate the characteristics people plant them for. More substitutes are noted in many listings, and the Garden’s website is added there too, with notes to look there for more. Good idea, allowing constant updating.  

The native substitutes I recognized were well handled. We have more local sources here, such as the California Invasive Plants Council’s leaflet and nursery card, and advice from the California Native Plant Society. Many of the invasive plants in the BBG’s book aren’t a problem here—yet—and many of their alternatives are exotic here. It’s the same old problem we Californians have with most general-geographic-interest garden books.  

I’d suggest sending this book to friends and relatives back East, but thumb through it first and note what’s invasive here, and what works in gardens instead. The glossy stock it’s printed on won’t show fingerprints, and everybody will learn something useful.  


Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants 

by C. Colston Burrell 

Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guides 

240 pages, trade paperback