On December 7, some anonymous person showed up on the Ardisia elliptica profile and dropped a big ol' douchebomb on me for owning one and writing a profile about it. I was called irresponsible, stupid, ridiculous, and silly, because of Ardisia's potential to become invasive and "rape" (his/r word1) ecosystems. It's so rapey, in fact, that its sale is actually illegal in Florida. I actually spent quite a bit of time on the plant's invasive tendencies in the profile itself, which you'd think would let this person know that, minimally, what s/he2 was telling me wasn't news, but you know how people get.
When I pointed out that I live in USDA Zone 5 Iowa, and Ardisia elliptica is not cold-hardy past Zone 9, and that furthermore the plant has been indoors for essentially its entire life, and was therefore not going to be raping anything, much less an entire ecosystem, his response was that it didn't matter, because his stumbling across my blog "proved" that I had South Florida readers,3 and what if one of them were moved to buy the plant because of my profile?
Which, you know, whatever. If its sale is in fact illegal in Florida, then South Florida readers won't be buying it anyway, so I don't quite get how this is a concern. But if you actually read the profile, it's not even especially glowing. I mean, yes, the plant makes a good, possibly even excellent, houseplant. It really does. I'm not going to apologize for saying so. But I think it's clear that I'm not advocating planting it in South Florida, or Hawaii, or anywhere else it might become invasive, and in fact am specifically telling people not to, at some length. So, you know, what the fuck, dude?
The conversation went on from there, various rudenesses were fired from both sides, and if you want to see the blow-by-blow you can go to the Ardisia elliptica profile and read the comments for yourself. But the reason I bring it up in the first place, aside from the obvious pleasure it will bring me to see other people join me in calling him a jackass and douchebag,4 is because he did say one thing that surprised me a little: I don't understand why you can't just be happy with North American plants.
It hadn't really occurred to me that this was something especially desirable, because, again, it all stays indoors, all the time, and so it's totally irrelevant where any of the plants come from. But okay, fine, let's see.
And it turns out that there are very few North American plants suitable for indoor cultivation. The bulk of those which are tend to be cactus and succulent species from Northern Mexico and the U.S. Desert Southwest;5 to get anything at all lush and green, you either have to go south, to the rainforests of South Mexico,6 or north, to the U.S.7 And anyway, since when do native plant purists consider it good enough merely to get the right continent? Species from North America can and do become invasives when planted in other parts of North America; for example, Syngonium podophyllum is invasive in Florida, but native to Mexico and Central America. So to be really satisfactory, I'd have to limit myself to plants native to the Upper Mississippi Valley, or maybe even the state of Iowa specifically. And you know what? Iowa doesn't have a climate much like the modern American home, so the modern American home isn't a good place to grow plant species native to Iowa. Not saying it couldn't be done, but it wouldn't be very comfortable for the humans involved.
Which Anonymous might counter with, well why do you even need houseplants at all? Can't you just be happy growing stuff outside? Which is such an obviously stupid question that it shouldn't be dignified with a response, so I won't.8
The thing is, though, this is all idiotic. Most plants aren't invasive. I mean, I think there's been so much of a fuss made about invasives in certain circles that people honestly think that anything introduced is bad.9 Also, invasive plants share certain characteristics: rapid growth, ability to self-pollinate, production of a lot of seeds, seeds that spread to new places via bird droppings or via wind, poisonous or inedible foliage, the ability to regenerate from a piece of root or rhizome, that sort of thing. These are measurable and observable qualities of the plants, and it's possible to make pretty solid advance guesses as to how big of a problem a plant is likely to be. Indeed, there are sites on-line where one can see the results of such assessments, like for example hear.org (HEAR = Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk).10
And most plants, native or not, behave themselves just fine. On-line conversations get heated about natives vs. exotics, and people get defensive about whether or not they should have the right to plant potentially invasive non-natives in their garden -- because of course they are good and responsible and would never let such a plant spread in ecosystem-damaging ways11 -- but whatever benefits there are to native plants, it's still not useful or accurate to be treating all plants like invasives just because they're from elsewhere.
(I've seen one person, who apparently meant it, say in a blog comment that "every plant is invasive somewhere." This is not even a little bit true, alas. It's a shame it isn't, because then we'd have the endangered-plant problem completely solved: all we'd have to do would be to introduce the endangered plants to all the available ecosystems until they found one they liked, and voila, endangered species saved! I mean, of course they'd be saved by becoming invasive and endangering something else, but that's easy enough to fix -- we'll just move the newly endangered plants around until they find something they like. Reshuffle the deck fast enough, and none of the cards will disappear.)
This hypervigilance against exotic species reaches amazing new heights of stupidity and dogmatism when you're talking about an "invasive" that can't freeze, being grown in Iowa, or when you're talking about the invasive potential of a plant that stays inside year-round. Plants that don't go outdoors don't become invasive, even if they might really, really want to. Plants that die from freezing temperatures aren't going to invade anything even if they're thrown on the compost pile. So, you know, chill the fuck out already.
My anonymous persecutor12 did make one point which is very nearly valid, which was that because the plants I buy are mostly grown in Florida, it doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong about Ardisias being invasive in Iowa.13 By buying the plant and encouraging others to do so, I'm creating a demand for a plant which may harm the area in which it is being produced. The reason this is only very nearly valid, and not actually valid, is that I am not responsible for writing and enforcing legislation in the state of Florida. Ardisia elliptica is supposed to be illegal in Florida: you can't plant or even own them, if you're an ordinary Florida citizen.
So how is it that certain companies are permitted to mass-produce Ardisia for sale?14 Indeed, if Ardisias are that abundant in the wild, to the point where they're wrecking ecosystems and stuff, why not just send people out to pull them up, throw them in pots, and ship them to zone 5, where they will eventually die an ungainly death? You get rid of the plants, you get money back for doing it. Why bother growing them in greenhouses, on purpose, at all?
Or! For my purposes as a consumer, it really doesn't matter to me whether my plants are grown in Florida, Texas, or on the third moon of the planet Zecuponia 7.15 There's every reason to think that they could be grown right here in Iowa, in fact: my personal plant has bloomed and formed berries, and I'm assuming that the seeds within the berries can be germinated if they ever get around to ripening. There's no reason why someone couldn't start a greenhouse in Iowa to produce Ardisias for other people in cold climates; I imagine the main reason that nobody does is because nobody could compete with Florida prices.16
If escaped Ardisias really are despoiling the natural Florida ecosystem -- and I'm not saying they aren't -- then I have to wonder why they're still being cultivated there. Is the Ardisia industry bringing in that much money and that many jobs? Do Floridians just not care that much about their ecosystems? Are sinister lobbyists for Big Ardisia convincing Florida legislators that there isn't really a problem, and any government oversight on Ardisia production would ruin Florida's economy forever? Is my anonymous anti-invasive friend perhaps a little overwrought and testerical?17 I don't know. But in any case, the state of Florida has it in its power to completely remove the apparently grave threat posed by PATSP and other Ardisia advocates, by not cultivating them there on purpose, and they don't do it.
Finally, even assuming that I accepted the premise that Ardisias are ruining everything, and stopped writing about them in any but the most disparaging terms, destroying them in garden centers whenever I came across them, exactly what would be accomplished? It's like telling someone not to say anything pleasant about starlings, lest someone be moved to keep one as a pet. That particular toothpaste is already out of the tube, and unless the entire state of Florida mobilizes to find and destroy Every. Single. Ardisia within its borders, and search every vehicle entering the state from top to bottom, it's now part of the Florida ecosystem. Period.
Complete eradication of an invasive species is the sort of thing that really requires a commitment from an entire state's government and population in order to be successful, and that's clearly not happening in Florida. Also, I'm not even sure that invasive plants and animals are ever completely eradicated. Maybe on small islands, where the chances of re-introduction from outside are minimal, and the population is constrained by the limited land area. Maybe then. But for all the effort put into trying to control and remove Asian carp, sparrows, Caulerpa taxifolia, garlic mustard, kudzu, multiflora rose, pigeons, gypsy moths, purple loosestrife, Hessian fly, cane toads, nutria, zebra mussels, lampreys, rabbits, cottony cushion scale, rhesus monkeys, rosy wolfsnails, monk parakeets, varroa mites, spotted knapweed, English ivy, gray squirrel, leafy spurge, brown tree snakes, dandelions, fire ants, tree of heaven, northern snakeheads, water hyacinth, crown of thorns starfish, and the many, many other problem species out there, in the various places they've wreaked havoc -- have any of them actually been eliminated? Is this a problem that ever gets fixed?
I don't exactly mean to say that since Ardisia elliptica is already in the wild, we ought to just give up and let it take over, just that there is a choice to be made here. Either Floridans specifically, and the U.S. in general, need to commit to eradication of the species, come up with a way to make controlling them more economical, or give up and let them take over. Because if you don't put enough money toward fixing this problem, you may as well just be throwing it away, year after year after year. And this is never, ever going to be dealt with properly if special exceptions are made for commercial plant growers. Hurricanes do happen, buildings do get knocked down: any plant being cultivated or mass-produced can get out and start the whole thing over again.
(Come back on Friday for the exciting conclusion. I promise a solution to the Ardisia elliptica problem, sentient molluscs, and wild speculation on what happens to gardeners in MRI machines.)
Photo credits: all my own.
1 Which for various reasons kind of bothers me: I tend to think that, all else being equal, the word rape should mean rape, and not being defeated in video games, made to pay taxes, or any of the various other things it is sometimes intended to mean. It's not even a very good metaphor for those things, as metaphors go. This use of the word, w/r/t the environment, has some historical precedent, and I used it right back in my reply, in the same way, so I'm probably not the best person to be raising objections. But even so, it does seem like there should be a line somewhere.
2 I'm almost positive that the anonymous commenter was male, due in large part to "his" use of the rape metaphor and obvious comfortableness in wandering onto a stranger's blog and calling its author irresponsible without, apparently, actually reading the post "he" was objecting to. Technically, I don't know, but I'm going to go with "he" for the rest of the post, because . . . he's obviously a guy.
3 If you want to be nitpicky, it really only proves that I have had one South Florida reader. Though I know I've had others, so fine, point taken.
4 (Well, you'd better.)
5 Examples: Echinocactus grusonii, Pachyphytum ovatum, Agave victoriae-reginae, Beaucarnea recurvata, Leuchtenbergia principis.
6 Anthurium podophyllum, Syngonium podophyllum, Chamaedorea metallica, Dieffenbachia spp., Selenicereus chrysocardium.
7 Tolmiea menziesii is native to the U.S. Pacific Northwest. A lot of carnivorous plants, for some reason, are from the continental U.S. and/or Canada, though none of them are particularly well-suited for cultivation indoors in someone's living room or office. (Dionaea muscipula is from the border between North and South Carolina, but also Sarracenia, Darlingtonia, Pinguicula and Drosera are all partly or totally North American genera.)
There are also a number of species which are occasionally claimed to be from the continental U.S., though the evidence is sketchy. Philodendron hederaceum, Phlebodium aureum, Peperomia obtusifolia, and Pedilanthus tithymaloides might be native to South Florida, Stenocereus thurberi may be native to Arizona, and Tradescantia zebrina and pallida might be native to South Texas.
8 And anyway, I shouldn't have to defend myself against things I imagine some jackass might ask. We'd be here all damn day.
9 An argument could be made that any introduced species is technically harmful to the native ecosystem, because even if it's behaving itself, it takes up space which could belong to a native. I mean, domesticated corn (Zea mays) is all but helpless to reproduce itself without human intervention, because we've bred them to be like that, so it's about as far from invasive as you could get. At the same time, the big cornfield at the end of my back yard is still taking up space that could be native Iowa prairie, full of native trees, butterflies, birds, leeches, or whatever, and so it still hurts the environment even if it were being cultivated with the most attention possible to fertilizer runoff, pesticide use, erosion, and so forth. (Which I doubt it is, but that's something for another post.)
I forgive this loss to the environment because, basically, I like to eat food. I find it helps me to stay alive, and staying alive has been a goal of mine for a good fifteen years now. Which is also a matter for another post.
10 HEAR assesses Ardisia elliptica as having a high risk of invasive and disruptive behavior (see assessment page), which is a lot like closing the barn door after the horse has already become an invasive plant. (A. elliptica is already all over Hawaii in the way that "Ghost Whisperer" is all over basic cable.) But it's cute that they're trying.
11 Which is no doubt perfectly true of many of the people saying this. However: everybody thinks they're responsible and conscientious people who would never do anything harmful, even the people who are obviously not. So we can't really go by someone's self-assessment.
Also, even people who are responsible citizens can be distracted away from taking care of their gardens, for example by dying, or having to move suddenly, and there's no way you can guarantee that these things won't end up happening to you. I.e., I'm not trying to call anybody irresponsible or immature exactly, just saying that if you deliberately plant something known to be invasive in your climate or climates similar to yours, or a plant which strongly resembles known invasives, your intentions and plans don't count for shit, because you are not in absolute control of what happens.
12 (Help, help, I'm being oppressed!)
13 (SPOILER: I am right.)
14 This is not a problem specific to Ardisia elliptica, either -- the same supplier was sending us a number of different plants which were Category 1 invasives in Florida. (Category 1: plants that have been determined to cause ecological damage in the state already. Category 2 invasives have expanded their ranges but have not yet provably hurt anything.) The Category 1 invasives they were shipping to us: Ardisia crenata, Ficus microcarpa, Lantana camara, Nephrolepis cordifolia, Schefflera actinophylla, and Syngonium podophyllum.
We also got the following Florida Category 2 invasives from Florida: Chamaedorea seifrizii, Epipremnum aureum, Jasminum sambac, Livistonia chinensis, Murraya paniculata, Pteris vittata, and Tradescantia spathacea. The full list of Category 1 and 2 plants as of the year 2009 is available as a .pdf file here.
So it's not just a matter of the Florida horticultural industry having a special exemption for Ardisia: they apparently have an exemption for everything. One hopes that this is because they have tough-as-nails regulators breathing down their necks at all times to make sure they don't accidentally do anything that's going to harm their native ecosystems -- I mean, aside from the harm that happens when you pave over large expanses of native ecosystem in order to construct gigantic greenhouses on them -- but it's probably actually that they get a special exemption because the city leaders want to be business-friendly or some such, or because they've convinced the regulators that there isn't really a problem, or because the regulatory agencies are so underfunded that they don't even try enforcing the rules for these plants. America is frequently fucked-up in this way.
But either way, what this tells me is that either 1) the citizens and elected officials of the state of Florida are just not that into their natural ecosystems, or 2) that the problem is not nearly as serious as Anonymous indicated, and Ardisia is not raping the environment so much as making unwanted sexual comments to it. I lean toward #1, having had some experience watching politicians ignore environmental issues.
15 (But not the seventh moon of Zecuponia 3! I mean, there's carnivorous plants, and then there's carnivorous plants, amirite?)
16 Heating a greenhouse in Iowa is not cheap, as I was informed way more often and emphatically than necessary while working at the garden center.
17 Testerical. (tess-TEAR-ih-cull) (from testes, by parallel with hysterical) Adj. 1. Exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion; irrational. Said of men. See also n. testeria.