There are few ecosystems today that are free from fragmentation and disturbance, a result of increased human development. More than 40 percent of Rhode Island’s native ecosystems are mowed or paved. Within many of the remaining intact green spaces, non-native species thrive. The language we use to discuss “invasive” species within the public sphere is very telling of our opinion of them. Our vernacular suggests that these species have a predatory nature: As if they arrive here with intent to “invade” our landscape, altering our state’s historical biodiversity.
We proliferate their tendencies to suggest that this is the case, and pose them responsible for the degradation of ecosystems and loss of native biodiversity. It’s common knowledge within the scientific community that a high abundance of exotic species has a direct correlation with the loss of native plant diversity. Contrary to popular belief about what constitutes an “invasion,” many species aren’t predatory in nature, and can be managed with simply removing the plants biomass.
Globalization, travel and new potential vectors for introduction of non-native plants shows no signs of slowing, while the political process and priorities for environmental management are at a virtual standstill. Our ability to coexist with and manage plant immigrants is in need of realignment. It isn’t as simple as building a wall.
Many non-native species established in the United States are known to have medicinal benefits to humans. In fact, many of them were brought here by settlers whom valued their properties. Mugwort, mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, beach rose, Japanese knotweed, Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive and garlic mustard are just a few noxious weeds that have known medicinal benefits when ingested by humans.
At our fingertips is a resource that is prioritized for eradication, should funding for research, supplies and labor be granted. Yet, here we have a population of millions of human who could utilize these herbal resources for themselves and their families. On a local level, this is a feasible management plan: Community education and engagement to target non-native species with medicinal benefits. Sites can be managed by groups of volunteers who trade their time and efforts for herbal and plant processing workshops, and they are allowed to keep their bounty, given they know the proper handling precautions for noxious plants.
State and local government can utilize these human resources to execute management plans within their municipalities, and build a community of individuals who are environmentally literate and involved. With proper implementation, this model for management is a win on all fronts. Small businesses around the state could capitalize on the foray of these plant resources. Individuals around the state are able to make income leading forays and teaching folks how to cook or use uncommon ingredients.
More and more we are seeing state and local governments taking creative approaches to complex problems. If we can align a public-health initiative with an environmental initiative, get folks both interested in and benefiting from a relentless environmental culprit, where do we sign up?
Marina Capraro is an undergraduate student at the University of Rhode Island.