We are under siege. We go about our daily business, bustling in its seeming normality, but the advance soldiers are there, blending in, but in plain sight for those with the eyes to see them.
I live just north of the Bruce Trail, on land adjacent to a former landfill now turned to dog runs, athletic fields, and running trails. In autumn, the staghorn sumac flares red on the hillsides, thick and dense, but by the side of the entrance to our neighbourhood, a leafy plant with bamboo-like stalks has begun to flourish, towering seven or eight feet high, pushing hard on the sumac. The same plant can be seen along the trails that lead back to the escarpment. I had paid it no notice until last year, when, reading about invasive plants, I recognized it in a mug shot.
This spring, as the land came back to life, I watched it extend its reddish tendrils, opening to heart-shaped leaves, growing larger and larger, expanding, creeping, relentless. Originally found only in East Asia, Japanese knotweed was introduced in North America and Europe as an ornamental species and to help with erosion control. Some beekeepers apparently like it as a source of nectar for bees during leaner parts of the summer, and apparently the resulting honey is quite tasty. A lot of gardeners mistake it for bamboo and unknowingly allow it to become established in their gardens. Like so many invasive species, however, the pests that normally keep the plant under control in its Asian home are not found here. And so, once established, it can absolutely overrun anywhere it takes root.
Japanese knotweed wants your soul. It’s not happy simply existing. It wants to dominate, to eliminate the competition, growing thick and fast and tall. It plays by its own rules and doesn’t care what gets in the way. It wants to crack apart your sidewalk, break apart your foundation. Four lane highway in the way? It’ll grow underneath and emerge on the other side. That’s what it does. It doesn’t play nice.
Just pull it out? Sure. It’ll grow right back. Its roots can extend down nine feet, and it can shoot out rhizomes 23 feet long. Even if you dig it all out, you better burn the remnants, as even a small piece of root or stem can sprout a new plant. Try to smother it? It will just poke through your barrier with its razor-sharp shoots. Pave it over? Don’t leave a single gap, or it will find it and get through. There’s the nuclear option–heribicides–although even they need to be repeatedly applied to control the plant.
There is a light standard at the end of a cul-de-sac in our neighbourhood where knotweed scouts have been spotted. In the picture on the left, knotweed surrounds the standard and is sending shoots up through cracks in the asphalt. On the right, a picture from today. Two days ago, the entire area around the standard was barren. Today, there are already new shoots appearing.
Knotweed is such a problem that in the UK, owners of properties where it is found have been denied mortgages. Yet the vast majority of people who see it have no idea how pernicious it is. It’s just a plant. A member of a plant sharing group I belong to posted a photo of a knotweed plant in her garden, ecstatic and raving about how she loved how well her bamboo was doing. When it was identified as knotweed and member after member piled on to tell her to GET RID OF IT NOW, she took it personally. Why the hate for such a pretty plant? It’s not hurting you! I have it under control! They’re just being mean to me! It’s not MY fault!
And it isn’t. The fault lies long ago, when someone saw a plant that was hardy and attractive, and introduced it without researching the consequences. The fault lies with those who try to defend the plant by citing its few good qualities and minimizing its much larger detrimental effects. The fault lies with others who have failed to understand the threat and allowed it to proliferate. The fault lies when we believe it must be like the dandelions and crabgrass we have seen before, when we see it growing around us –but not quite in our backyards–and delay action until it’s too late and it’s 13 ft. tall and nearly impossible to remedy. By the time we act, the damage is extensive, the life has been choked out of something that had once thrived, and any hope of control has been dashed.
Yes, I am talking about a plant.
I am also not talking about a plant at all.