As ET, the Extra Terrestrial, turns thirty this month, it seems appropriate that our “Notes from the River” reveals the dark truth about our own alien invasion right here in the Sangamon River Valley.
Yes it’s true, the Sangamon River Valley is being attacked by alien invaders. Many of these silent killers live right among us, hiding in plain sight in our own back yards!
My local naturalist friend Chuck Berschinski first alerted me to this crisis, oddly, by calling me out on (gasp!) an error in an earlier “Notes from the River” column. It seems that the Silver Maple isn’t a non native species after all, but its excess proliferation is still not a good thing.
Chuck, always humble, commented that he “probably wasn’t the first loyal reader” to call me out on this faux pas. But that’s Chuck, always overestimating the botanical savvy of my loyal “Notes from the River” readers (neither Mom nor my brother Randy were ever that good at botany).
But while the Silver Maple is in fact a native that causes problems along our river banks, Chuck pointed out that we do in fact have a huge problem around here with alien invaders!
For example, take the beautifully named “Tree of Heaven” (please). It is so named because it can provide greenery in the most difficult of places, such us paved cities, junkyards and other urban landscapes. But if it grows so well there, imagine how it can grow here in our fertile soil.
Here, this deciduous tree can grow to 90 feet tall and shade out all other species. Except for its rapid growth in hostile environments, this tree has few positive features. For example, while most people enjoy the sweet smell of flowers, the East Central Illinois Natural Stewardship guide notes that “the small greenish flowers they develop in June are very foul smelling on the female trees.” Blecch!
It grows and spreads fast, too, by developing “flat papery fruits that are wind dispersed”. And it will have its vengeance if you just try to get rid of it. Workers tasked with cutting and removing large stands of this tree have suffered heart and intestinal problems from being exposed to the “Tree of Heaven’s” sap.
And then there’s the teeny Garlic Mustard. It is said that “From little acorns do mighty oaks grow, and from teeny Garlic Mustard do mighty oaks die” (well, that last part I made up, but it’s pretty good, huh?).
White Oaks are the state tree of Illinois and are one of our most impressive local trees; many of the larger ones in our area are over 200 years old.
But the tiny Garlic Mustard can bring it down. It excretes a toxin that kills a fungus in the ground. This fungus grows symbiotically with White Oaks, helping its roots absorb the nutrients it needs from the surrounding soil.
And while I’m on the subject, did you know that the world’s largest living thing is a fungus? (And no, it’s not that one in the shower of your son’s Campustown apartment). It’s in Oregon and covers 2,384 acres. The website of “The Scientific American” refers to it, scientifically speaking, as a “particularly ginormous fungus.” They also note that it’s about 2,400 years old, or maybe it’s 8,650 years old. Who can tell with ginormous fungi? But I digress.
One of the most vengeful (and tastiest) ways to get rid of invasive aliens is of course to eat them. Chuck and I made a morning snack of his Garlic Mustard, which, surprisingly, tastes a bit like strong, garlicky mustard. Go figure.
One of the nastiest and most prolific alien invaders of all is the Bush Honeysuckle. These seemingly attractive landscaping shrubs green out early in the Spring, producing pretty yellow and white flowers, and in late summer and early fall, their attractive red berries provide a colorful spray to those drab wooded areas. But like your adorable house cat “Fluffy,” the attractive Bush Honeysuckle is a killer in disguise, destroying everything in its path and proliferating unchecked.
The Bush Honeysuckle’s early greenout and late leaf drop shades out and kills nearly everything growing underneath it including everyone’s favorite fungi, the Morel! And the birds of course love its bright red berries, but then they go around pooping them out everywhere, causing rapid propagation. And then if that’s not bad enough, they also produce chemicals in their roots that are toxic to native species.
So while you’re watching that adorable alien ET and cursing those mean old scientists for wanting to eradicate him, just remember that not all aliens are so benign and lovable, just wanting to get back home. Many are here to stay, slowly killing off the natives and taking over their land. Be ever vigilant!ed!
Appeared as "Notes from the River" Mahomet Citizen, February 7, 2012, by Scott Hays