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A Clear and Present Danger


I was recently interviewing a well-known garden writer about the benefits of an outdoor space in which to contemplate and enjoy your plants, your sense of aesthetics and nature in general. (Ah. Just writing that sentence lowered my blood pressure by ten points.) Among the things I learned:

• Plastic flowers have little in common with nature
• Bamboo sticks are not an optimum construction material for a pergola
• An arborvitae fence works only if the plants don’t die

That kind of advice stays with you for awhile, much like a chocolate corn dog washed down with 32 ounces of pink lemonade.

But it caused me to look in the mirror – never a pretty sight – and think about my own connection with the world outside my back door. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that if I’m not Public Enemy #1, I probably rate at least honorable mention.

Let’s start with cup plant, or Silphium perfoliatum, which is native to about half of the United States and much of eastern Canada. I’m told on one website that it prefers moist, loamy soil. Tell that to the cup plants growing out of the cracks in my asphalt alley, or the ones that have sprung up on my parkway, which receives about two inches of rain per decade. (Don’t ask me how that is possible. I’m just reporting the facts. If you want science, there are a bunch of other pages in this magazine that will make you happy. Now keep reading!)

And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m the guy who planted this stuff a number of years ago. Well, it spread … a little bit. To the alley, as I mentioned, into a few yards, some swimming pools, a couple of abandoned cooking grills, the top of a few cell phone microwave towers. The cup plants on the corner of the block look pretty with their daisy-like blooms and opposite leaves that can hold water where they join the stem. Hence the name “cup plant.” But this particular group is tough. They keep cheap booze in their leaf-stem cups, they smoke cigarettes and they take the lunch money from the feral cats in the neighborhood. Like I said, those are tough plants.

Did you see the photos that the NASA space probe New Horizons sent back from the dwarf planet Pluto? (And don’t even get me started on why Pluto got demoted. Thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rest of you Pluto haters for invalidating my entire childhood!) The resolution of the cameras was outstanding – so good, in fact, that I’m pretty sure you can see cup plants on the surface. And, more than likely, those plants escaped from my yard!

And it’s not just Silphium that makes me a menace to Western, and Eastern and Plutonian civilization. Ever heard of Parthenocissus quinquefolia? It’s also known as Virginia creeper. I know, I know, I KNOW – the name should have tipped me off! It was one of the first things I planted in my yard because – like cup plant – it’s native to even more U.S. states and an even larger part of Canada. Can you see how easily I’m duped by maps?

I was thrilled at how lovely my wooden fence looked when the Virginia creeper quickly covered it. Then it covered my neighbor’s shed and my neighbor’s dog and a couple of other neighbors’ cars. When, finally, it coveted my neighbor’s wife, I threatened it with a bible and my pruners and it backed off. However, when it covered the coffee table in my living room, I began to suspect that I had a problem.

The problem was me and my choice of plants.

Have I mentioned the cutleaf staghorn sumac in my yard – Rhus typhinia ‘Laciniata’? Did you know that they spread by runners and that those runners can pop up in your lawn and in your garden beds and in your shag carpeting? Yes, it’s a North American native. Yes, it shows up in a bunch of U.S. states and in Canada. Boy, do I hate maps. But, hey, it’s a native plant! What could possibly go wrong? (See Silphium perfoliatum and Parthenocissus quinquefolia.)

Hmm, my blood pressure seems to be spiking. I think it’s time to go outside, threaten a few plants and dig up the dead part of my arborvitae fence. Send me a text if the new planetary probe to Jupiter spots what looks like Virginia creeper threatening to cover the Giant Red Spot.

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