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With invasives, letting nature take its course ill-advised

  • A photo of bush honeysuckle is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

    A photo of bush honeysuckle is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

  • A photo of common buckthorn is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

    A photo of common buckthorn is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

  • A photo of bush honeysuckle is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
  • A photo of common buckthorn is just one of many invasive plants growing on the property of David and Carol Wolfe, as seen, October 12, 2012, in Barberton, Ohio. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

They mowed their lawn and tended to the landscaped areas. But nature, they reasoned, was better suited to take care of the rest.

Now they’re rethinking that approach.

The Wolfes recently discovered their woods are rife with invasive plants that are elbowing out more desirable native species.

David Wolfe recently hacked out two patches of burning bush a previous owner had planted and managed to clear part of the woods of the plants’ offspring, which were crowding the understory.

The couple has also pulled masses of garlic mustard and has started attacking the Oriental bittersweet vines that are twining up the trees.

But there’s more to be removed, notably the bush honeysuckle, common buckthorn and multiflora rose that have established themselves around the property.

“We’ll be doing this for a long time,” Carol Wolfe predicted.

The Wolfes may be more aware of the problem than most homeowners, but they’re no more culpable. For centuries, gardeners have been contributing to the spread of non-native plants, most without realizing it.

The Wolfes probably wouldn’t have known, either, were it not for a plant-savvy son and daughter-in-law who noticed the situation. Their son, Scott Wolfe, recently earned a master’s degree in horticulture and crop science from Ohio State University. Their daughter-in-law, Danae Wolfe, is the agriculture and natural resources educator with the OSU Extension in Summit County and a specialist in invasive plants.

The problem with invasives is that they lack the natural controls that keep them in check in their native ranges, said Rick Gardner, chief botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Only a fraction of non-native plants become invasive, he said, but those that do crowd out native species, altering habitats and threatening the wildlife that depends on the native plants for food, shelter and other functions.

The irony, Danae Wolfe said, is that plants become invasive because they possess the very qualities gardeners prize: They grow quickly, they require little care, and they’re rarely bothered by insects or diseases.

While you’re enjoying those fuss-free plants, they may be reproducing exponentially without your knowledge by sending out shoots or producing seeds that are carried to other places by wildlife, wind, shoes or other means.

Some of the troublesome plants got here accidentally, but many were brought here on purpose.

Countless immigrants have brought over seeds to grow foods or flowers that remind them of home, and non-native plants have also been imported to control erosion, feed livestock and serve any number of other purposes.

Even the dandelion was brought here by colonists in the 1600s as a treatment for dysentery, Gardner noted.

Non-native plants are still being planted unwittingly. Some invasive plants are sold in nurseries, many are traded among gardeners or some are planted by cities to line streets, Gardner and other invasive-plant experts said.

Three plants, in particular, make Kathy Smith’s list of worst offenders in Northeast Ohio: bush honeysuckle, autumn olive and callery pear. All were brought here with the best of intentions, said Smith, who directs the OSU Extension’s forestry program.

Bush honeysuckle is a popular ornamental plant. Autumn olive was planted to reclaim former strip mines. Callery pear has been used widely in street plantings, although urban foresters are now advising communities to stop planting it. But “that doesn’t mean they have,” Smith said.

Persuading homeowners to get rid of invasive plants can be a hard sell. Even when they’re aware of the problem, some are reluctant to remove plants they love, Danae Wolfe said.

“They just have this emotional connection. . How do you break that connection?” she said.

Nevertheless, the experts urge people to familiarize themselves with invasive plants and find native replacements. Lists of suggested native species and sources for buying them are on some states’ website, and Gardener said they’re also increasingly available at nurseries.

Act fast when you spot an invasive plant.

It’s easier to control a small stand than to eradicate an extensive invasion.

Just ask Carol and David Wolfe.

The couple expects to spend years doing battle with the invasive plants on their property.

“I don’t know that it will ever be possible to control,” David Wolfe said.

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