The author (far left) with the landscape crew of environmental government agency . . . combatidiendo la invasion!
I grew up in South Florida and now live in the Palouse, a region that straddles North Central Idaho and Eastern Washington. It is a landscape borne by fissures and floods and serious wind, with dense bedrock, rolling hills of rich soil, a small mountain range, fresh water, and four seasons. Like many people who live in the Palouse, I came for a job at one of the two state universities, where I teach landscape architecture. For twenty plus years, I have learned to navigate this inland country and grown utterly fond of the small town where I reside with its tie-dye-meets-camo community vibe, food co-op, wheat fields, big farmers’ market, and modest creeks. Still, I have to make an effort to feel at home here. Though I have become “naturalized” to, and indeed befriended the fertile lands of this region, I frequently yearn for warm turquoise water, heat, and humidity. I miss the subtropical vegetation of my childhood home.
With each botanical encounter, Missy grew emboldened to defend native plants, banish exotics species, and attest her hope for the world.
In my teens I was a passionate environmentalist caught by a specific South Florida cause: the state’s embattled history with invasive plant species. Working as an intern for an environmental government agency in Miami, I teamed up with another intern to make a live-action video that explored native and non-native vegetation in the area. Entitled The Adventures of the Cosmic Ranger, it tracked the capers of the Cosmic Ranger, a groovy outdoor guide-cum-superhero and her sidekick Missy, as in “watch it, little missy.” The lighthearted story had an uncomplicated plot: a bratty tree-harming teen turns sweet tree-hugger when led by Cosmic Ranger’s wisdom and the plants themselves.
Cosmic Ranger focused on three threatened plant communities –– densely-canopied hardwood hammocks, fire-charged pine rocklands, and coast clinging mangrove swamps –– and three “evil exotic” species that directly and indirectly messed with them. One species, the red berry-bearing Brazilian Pepper, was imported as an ornamental that, over time, jumped the garden wall. Another, the camphor-scented Melaleuca, was brought over to be used as timber and to drain the Everglades. The third, the shallow-rooted Australian Pine, was imported to buffer the shoreline from storms, stabilize canals, and stop erosion. With each botanical encounter, Missy grew emboldened to defend native plants, banish exotics species, and attest her hope for the world. The end.
Three common native Florida plant communities — hardwood hammock, pine rocklands, mangroves . . . and the author in her teens, pine posing.
Making Cosmic Ranger furthered my affection for and curiosity about my subtropical homeland. Equally important was how making the video introduced me to a binary mindset about plants. It was the first time it occurred to me that plants could be deemed good or bad, benevolent or mean, passive or aggressive, this or that — depending on what they did and where they did it. The dichotomy appealed to my teenage self because it was easily understood and seemed to directly align with my burgeoning conservation-driven values and concern for Florida landscapes.
Prior to the internship, I appreciated plants for their luminous hues, velvety leaves, balsamy blooms, tangy fruits, easy rustle, or simply their calming, reliable company. My family’s yard included bananas, roses, key limes, jasmine, sabal palms, coconuts, orchids, oranges, cocoplums, and more. Some plants were from Florida, but most had come from afar. All of them could survive in hot, wet, salty air, and all of them were likable. Though I begrudged my weekly garden chores, I loved being in the yard among the green melange.
My school, like my family’s garden, like Miami, hosted a mash-up of cultures. My classmates came from Canada, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Columbia, Argentina, South Africa, and also, a few miles away. Though I was aware of my atypical origins –– white and actually born in the Sunshine State –– I took the variety around me for granted. Eventually I grew to consciously appreciate it, albeit with a touch of teen smugness. The nice thing about Miami, I said earnestly and self-satisfied, was that it was so close to the U.S.
South Florida's so-called "evil exotics" — Brazilian Pepper, Melaleuca, Australian Pine.
Plants indigenous to a given area embody a relationship with a particular section of the planet. Non-native, so-called “invasive plants” optimize sun, soil, and water wherever they are and exercise their vegetal prowess to self-perpetuate, pre-existing ecologies be damned. When a landscape architect opts to use what is growing on-site for a design — and what is growing on-site consists of invasive species — the plant palette may be referred to as “spontaneous vegetation.” Spontaneous refers to plants emerging without cultivation or appearing from out of nowhere. Touted as maintenance-free and self-sufficient, such plants often become food sources and habitat for wildlife in what might otherwise be depauperate places: locations lacking in numbers or variety of species. Spontaneous vegetation develop clever strategies to reproduce rapidly, prolong their populations, and can quickly make a monoculture on a given area of soil, rendering it uninhabitable for other vegetation. Understandably, these species are negatively depicted.
For a few years, I went along with the botanical badmouthing. But after graduate school and a smattering of field biology jobs where I applied herbicide (futilely), lopped off limbs, and pulverized stumps to contain non-native plant populations, I grew weary of non-native plant eradication and its associated rhetoric. I was disturbed by the aggressive language on trailhead signs, in journal articles, and in conversation — targeting alien species, fighting the threat, extinguishing the enemy, killing the invaders. I recalled, uncomfortably, from The Language of Landscape by Anne Winston Spirn, that in Nazi Germany plant materials became symbols of racial purity and extensions of the political agenda. A “war of extermination” was declared upon non-native plants to cleanse the landscape of “unharmonious foreign substance.”
When the subject of plant material comes up in classes I teach, I explain my concerns about holding a right-wrong approach to species selection. Encouraging flexibility, I discuss the entanglements among plants, people, and values, and note the impossibility of a neutral specimen. I talk with students about the importance of knowing their design intentions, and what they hope to achieve. Studio assignments may ask students to dwell on questions that have complicated answers. What is practical, preferable, and probable — given the site context and limits — and what is ideal? What inputs are required to sustain the planting design? What are the possible impacts of a design? Who will the design serve? Would certain vegetation choices honor the past, disclose an unspoken story, or erase an overlooked legacy at the site? My intention here is to prompt students to examine their assumptions about what belongs. Sometimes, a student discovers that a weedy plant is the most stunning and the least needy specimen that can grow at a given location. Or that a weedy plant’s journey mirrors an aspect of local history. Thus, with a plan for careful containment, an invasive specimen becomes a viable vibrant plant choice, reflecting the site and revealing something about complexity, coexistence, and care.
Spontaneous vegetation. . . cemetery wildflowers and roadside grasses.
In the novel Scattered all Over the Earth by Yöko Tawada — which is broadly about climate disaster and linguistic ingenuity — the main character ponders non-native speakers “who move back and forth between two languages . . . always looking for new words and expressions.” She wonders who is more likely to have a bigger vocabulary and a more open mindset — native or non-native speakers? When I ponder how non-native plants are similar to non-native speakers, I realize they both use their inherent creativity to successfully take root and thrive in unfamiliar ground. The plants, akin to the speakers, continually modify their tactics to negotiate their new terrain becoming multilingual, cross-continental travellers.
Recently I wondered what I would do differently were I to remake Cosmic Ranger today. Instead of shunning non-native plants, I would generously appreciate their beauty and embrace them as kin, as home-seeking creatures we share the planet with. Rather than reviling them, the storyline would allow the audience to find space between extremes, to take in their capacity for endurance and resilience in our climate-changed world.
The plants’ ongoing spread and abundance, notwithstanding campaigns against them, would be a comfort amid chaos, becoming reminders of the life forces that persist everywhere, in cosmic proportion. ≈ç
Bike trail among wheat fields, silos and safflower, native Palouse prairie remnant . . . a landscape influenced by and influencing humans.
JOLIE KAYTES is a professor of landscape architecture at Washington State University. Her work contemplates the importance of place and how landscapes are represented. She is a National Endowment for the Humanities grant recipient and her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Terrain.org, The Citron Review, and Chautauqua. She lives in Moscow, Idaho.
Photos by the author.