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Invasive species and fire-watch towers

About 15 years ago, driving some backwoods road in the St. Francis National Forest, I came across an old fire-watch tower. It had been fenced in but, on the backside, someone had pried the chain link loose.

A few days later, on some mad mission, my cousin and I pulled ourselves up the girders to a set of rickety stairs 10 or 15 feet from the ground. We climbed very slowly trying to avoid any rotten, or missing, stairs – and there were plenty to avoid. It was nerve-wracking but we finally reached the top’s payoff: a small cabin offering a fantastic 360 degree view of the forest, the river flowing far off in the distance.

The most noticeable thing, though, was the kudzu covering massive portions of the forest like a green tidal wave.

I thought about that this week when reading about a study showing how easy it is for well-meaning gardeners to procure invasive plant species. The research proves, once again, how modern convenience can quickly jump up and bite.

“In recent decades, the horticultural industry expanded globally and changed structurally through the emergence of new distribution channels, including internet trade (e-commerce),” says the study’s abstract. “We surveyed, on a daily basis, e-commerce trade on 10 major online auction sites (including eBay) of approximately three-fifths of the world's spermatophyte flora.”

So, what might be in those boxes you’re having delivered?

On the auction sites, the study’s authors found 510 invasive plant species. Of those, 35 are on the union’s list of the top 100 most problematic with passionfruit taking the top spot. Deals were struck some 90 times a day for passionfruit shipments.

Using the two most widely-used models, a second recent study has looked at risk assessment of biofuel crops becoming invasive weeds. Both models “failed to reliably distinguish weeds from crops,” said a press release. “For example, cereal rye received a higher risk score than kudzu, which is a widespread and damaging invader across the Southeast.”

In the absence of effective risk models, the research team “stressed the importance of field evaluations to determine whether crops are escaping field borders.”

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