Because No One Wants to Read an Article on Non-Native, Invasive Plants

By Alyssa Nyberg

Let’s face it, we’d all much rather read an article about our beautiful Indiana prairie wildflowers, butterflies and birds than a depressing article on non-native, invasive plants.

Yet as gloomy a subject as it is, invasive plants are actually wildly fascinating and very important to learn about. If we don’t understand the problem species, we can’t possibly protect our beautiful natural areas, including those lovely prairie wildflowers and all the majestic wildlife that thrives in a healthy native prairie – like butterflies, bees and bison! (And everyone likes to read about bison, right?)

Non-native plants are plants that historically would not have occurred in a given area, and invasive plants are species that have a tendency to take-over. Put the two together and you have a messy cocktail of a lot of bossy plants that don’t belong here, pushing out all the plants that do. That’s not right, or fair, or even healthy for our natural places and the insects and animals that depend on them.

Some of the biggest culprits to the vitality of our local spaces are the non-native and invasive honeysuckles. Such a pretty name for these shrubs and vines with sweet tasting nectar in their flowers! But the harm they do is not pretty at all. Areas that were once park-like savannas, with a few large oaks and an understory of many types of wildflowers, have become overgrown, overtaken and overwhelmed by these highly aggressive, invasive honeysuckles.

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A dense thicket of honeysuckle. Photo by Alyssa Nyberg.

There are three main non-native honeysuckle species in our area – Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) – a shrub which grows naturally is Asia, Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) – also a shrub which grows naturally in Eurasia, and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) a vine that grows naturally in Asia.

All three have oval shaped leaves that grow opposite one another along the stem, and bright red berries that grow in pairs at the base of the leaves. Our native honeysuckle – and there are a few!, have just one berry at the base of each leaf.

The non-native honeysuckle invaders have a brilliant strategy – they are one of the earliest species to green up in the spring, and one of the latest to stay green in the fall. This stay-green strategy allows honeysuckle to capture sunlight for a longer period of time and pack away even more nutrients for the following year. By retaining their green leaves for longer, they also continue to shade out the understory plants for the full length of the growing season, discouraging and weakening them. Devious and effective!

Red berries on honeysuckle. Photo by Gus Nyberg.
A close-up of the red berries on honeysuckle. Photo by Gus Nyberg.

As you drive around Indiana this month of October, notice the dense walls of green in the understory of our woodlots. That’s more than likely non-native honeysuckle.

A dense thicket of honeysuckle is a threat to our native plant and animal species. Few caterpillars feed on the foliage which results in less food for birds, bats, and other members of the ecosystem. Photo by Alyssa Nyberg.

However, we can capitalize on their green-for-longer strategy to find and control non-native honeysuckle when the leaves of other plants have turned brown or fallen off.   

  • When honeysuckle is young and small – less than a foot in height, we can target the easy-to-spot still-green sprigs in the late fall and pull the stems by hand.
  • When honeysuckle is older and larger, we can spray their green leaves with an herbicide containing glyphosate in the late fall which kills the plant, but should not damage any surrounding native plants which have already senesced for the season.

Folks often wonder why we would want to remove/kill a living plant. Isn’t all green good? Well, to put it bluntly, no. Non-native honeysuckle creates ever so many problems:

  • it threatens diverse thriving natural spaces by creating monocultures of one plant
  • it shades out light-loving flowers on which pollinators depend
  • honeysuckle thickets are nearly devoid of insect life and are therefore dead space to migratory birds who depend on insects for energy
  • their abundant yet non-nutritious berries give little in the way of energy and nutrition to birds and woodland critters
  • the prolific berries are eaten by birds and the seeds that are spread in bird droppings allowing honeysuckle to invade even more areas
  • and for us humans, honeysuckle is a big pain in the keester to walk through – it hinders our ability to walk unencumbered though natural areas and enjoy their beauty.

Fascinated by this discussion on non-native honeysuckle? You and me both! Lots to talk about and learn about and do together to improve our natural places. No matter where you live, you can help to remove invasive plants, and to plant and promote native plants.

A great way to find out more about non-native plant management, get hands on experience, and have all your burning questions answered about honeysuckle and other invasive plants, is to attend a local Weed Wrangle® hosted in your very own county. https://www.sicim.info/weed-wrangle-indiana

In Newton County we have a newly formed Newton County Nature Partnership (NCNP) which will be tackling non-native plants and promoting native plants. To find out more about upcoming NCNP meetings in Newton County, contact Bri Styck with Newton County Soil and Water Conservation District at 219-285-2217.

And there you have it, we did it! We just made it through a very long article on non-native, invasive plants. Well done, my friends!

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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