In his essay “The Toll: Sandy and the future” (“The New Yorker,” February 11 & 18, 2013, issue), Ian Frazier writes of his independent inspection of the New Jersey and New York shorelines following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The superstorm is on record as being the fourth costliest in U.S. history. Its damage to homes and businesses was breathtaking, but what often gets less attention is the effect of such storms on natural areas.
Frazier writes, “Almost every place I went along the shoreline in Staten Island after the hurricane, the chaos of junk and drift and wrack contained mats of dead phragmites stalks. Standing in a soggy no-man’s-forest near a beach, with invasive Japanese honeysuckle and bittersweet and greenbrier vines dragging down the trees, and shreds of plastic bags in the branches, and a dirty snow of Styrofoam crumbs on the ground, and heaps of hurricane detritus strewn promiscuously, and fierce phragmites springing up all over, I saw the landscape of the new hot world to come.” (I added the emphasis.)
If you’ve ever read Frazier’s writing – and you really should – you know that he’s noted for his humor, but that’s selling him short. He’s a solid expository writer, intensely fascinated with the human condition, as well as the condition of our environment. The reason I bring this up is not to review Frazier’s work, but to point out that concern for how we handle invasives, how we protect our environment, how we cope with changing weather patterns is not merely a matter for NOAA or naysayers. Reportage in literary and commentary magazines is filled with observations and well-researched articles that call attention to twin topics of climate change and invasiveness. The hunger for information is there; the need for sound, solid, science-based information is there.
“We see a swampy place, we think ‘cattails’; but there aren’t very many cattails around anymore. Instead, in this marsh and others, and along shorelines, and in wet ground all over the Northeast and beyond, there is now an invasive, extremely competitive, highly adaptive reed whose scientific name is Phragmites australis, usually referred to simply as ‘phragmites’ (pronounced ‘frag-mighties’). These reeds can be 20 feet tall, they have brushlike seed heads, their leaves grow on only one side of the stalk, and they reproduce both by seeds and by clones – that is, by underground rhizomes as well as by runners above the ground. Phragmites reeds have amazing resilience, surviving climatic and chemical changes of many kinds, and colonizing areas disturbed by development before other species can get established. Their invasion has been what ecologists call ‘cryptic’; that is, the prevailing phragmites type moved in long before people realized it wasn’t the native plant but a nonnative variant.
“The native phragmites is able to coexist with other species like cattails and spartina grass,’ he continues. “The invasive phragmites creates a monoculture. Because of its rhizome reproduction, a single huge expanse may represent only four or five phragmites plants, while other species are driven out. Today, in the Northeast, the native phragmites appears to have declined, itself a victim of the invader.”
Drawing attention to such matters in the popular press can be a double-edged sword, as we’ve seen happen in years past. The public can panic and, without further research or verification, blame the nursery industry. These invasives, they reason, are plants. So those darned plant people must be culpable.
Or it can alert the public to a problem that’s not easily resolved, but is one that can be tackled head on with the combined efforts of scientist and citizen. The green industry’s role in this now – as it has been in past decades – is to reach out and help those who are not plant professionals understand the good work that it is doing. It’s PR, it’s outreach, it’s self-promotion. And it’s well-worth it, for all of us.
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