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PHYTOFASCISM


I had a piece on crape-myrtles ready to post but rescheduled. I needed to get the following out of my craw. FOREWARNING! It is long, revealingly candid and should be reread.

I am a naturalist and over the hill botanist with a keen interest in biogeography, especially disjunct distribution and centers of origin (see my Aug 2021 rant). Additionally, I have devoted much time and effort addressing the native v nonnative issue and produced the first national invasives conference, Biological Pollution: The Control and Impact of Invasive Exotics Species, which covered both animals and plants. The meeting was held in Indianapolis in 1991. Furthermore, I am the only person who was a founding member of both the Illinois Native Plant Society (Central Chapter) AND the Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS, formerly Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society aka INPAWS). I am also a passionate gardener who uses native plants when I can acquire them and IF they are a good fit for the habitat and purpose. This biodata is brought forward not as boast but to drive home the point that I understand the invasive issue and advocate indigenous species. I know whereof I speak.

For decades I have railed against the truly nasty invasive exotic species, focusing on the human factor . . . the spotlight of my rant next month is the purveyors, the vendors who sold and are selling plants known to be invasive. Moreover, I have spent countless hours removing the unwanted invaders. Yet, while the quantity and individual specimen count is both daunting and frightening, please realize that the number of problematic nonnative plant species (i.e., invasively naturalizing) is <0.1% of those exotics we use. Yes, that tiny subset contains monsters, and we should attempt to prevent their use and to dispatch them, but it is a small number, <1% of the species in the flora (i.e., native + naturalized). There are perhaps 20 "really" horrible exotic plant taxa in the Midwest, with Asian bush honeysuckle, Callery pear and winter-creeper currently atop the list. It is too easy and wrong to lump the relatively few horrific invaders together, of which some are worse than others, with the overwhelmingly benign exotic species into one category . . . THEM, the foreigners. The one-size-fits-all box of "bad' ones mindset is unwise and treacherous, gardening and life in general. Further, I have commented about native plant policing for years, much of it unjustified. I will elaborate below and call your attention to several of my previous rants where I address the issue.

Unfortunately, many native plant enthusiasts (1) have limited gardening and/or field experience . . . although they are often quick to offer an opinion and take sides, (2) have allowed themselves to be misguided and deluded, (3) are prone to exaggerating native plant merits, overlooking their negatives and, in gardening, vilifying and underplaying nonnatives, even in the many cases where they are clearly as good or a better choice, (4) assign too much significance to the place of origin (it is but one factor in a plant's profile) besides, the native designation is often misunderstood and largely meaningless (a place in time, static only by perspective) and (5) seem unwilling to objectively consider the topic (nativity) and the dark underbelly of the promoted exclusivity. Instead, the native enthusiasts jump and cling to a preferred, albeit false, conclusion . . . a stance based on emotion, bad advice and presumption rather than impartial analysis. I have found more than a few of the enthusiasts boarderline to full on zealots. And, while advice and opinion can be useful they are not synonymous nor always the same as information. Alas, as Paul Simon told us, "Still a man hears what he wants to hear And disregards the rest." Facts be damned. Among other things it is called close-minded. Not a good trait, regardless. Sadly, critical thinking cannot compete with the blinding desire to believe in something or someone.

Many of the enthusiasts are purists who believe that we should only have native species in the landscape AND that we CAN wholly eliminate the invaders, some of which have been living and reproducing here for more than a century. The eradication notion is appealing. I get it . . . but it is a dreamscape. Unfortunately, the number of invasive plant species we have been able to expel, to drive back across the water, is ZERO. The infections frequently are too widespread and once inoculated it is too late . . . established, here to stay. At this point the best we can do is attempt to keep the problematic naturalized taxa (the invaders) in check wherever we can (we certainly should try) as well as attempting to prevent more introductions, both locations and species. There is NO reset button and the removal is NOT a once and done task! Rather, it is a process and requires vigilance, but even with a concerted effort we seldom get all of them AND reinfection is very likely. This new look (essentially infected tissue, a skin disease of the landscape) is just part of the environmental change humans are causing. Shame seems an appropriate word to describe how we should feel given that we are responsible for the introduction / the infection 99% of the time (82% via landscaping, 14% via agriculture & wildlife biology and 3% via erosion control). Avoidance works, but most of us are not good listeners and the message (prevention) is often unheeded. Regrettably, the unwanted invasive plants and animals, which includes humans, are not going away regardless of how strong the desire or how hard we try. It is unrealistic and likely impossible but "we CAN get rid of ALL of them" is precisely what the purists want to believe (how they have permitted themselves to be deluded) thus the foolish exclusionary fanaticism. Belief trumping reality. Consider this, if it is a good idea to be leery of rejecting new ideas on the basis that they are different from what you currently believe, why is it not also a bad idea to reflexively and quickly accept ideas and actions merely because you find them appealing? We would be better off if we more often took some time to ask ourselves WHY, again, before jumping. -- Incidently, being invasive is a behavior, not a unique physical appearance, which is too bad because we have really honed our ability to persecute when "they" look different. Additionally, many invasive plants are visually appealing, and they are all easy to grow :) thus complicating the challenge when trying to explain the problem (i.e., get people to understand and act, responsibly). Sadly, the invasive issue is but one of several acute environmental problems . . . all related to carrying capacity.

The native purists have good intentions . . . more than a few I consider friends . . . but they are mistaken. Even so, their movement continues to take root and grow, nurtured by ignorance and the alure of misguiding half-truths and speculation. For example, the aforementioned eradication OR native insects use only native species OR all we need to do to preserve biodiversity is to plant native species. The insect fidelity claim is easily disproved. Some warm sunny summer day visit a well-stocked garden center or observe flowering entomophilous plants used in landscaping, the bulk of which will be nonnative. By the way, the alarming insect population decline is primarily attributable to excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides and other human activity rather than a deficiency of native plant species in our gardens, nor corrected by planting them there. Too little, too late! Moreover, I think you would discover the number of native species available at the vast majority of retail outlets (1) is woefully insufficient and (2) the plants they sell commonly have been treated with systemic biocides by the producers to keep the specimens unblemished, thus marketable. I assert that a warning label should be required because, if plants being used have been so treated, what you are planting is equivalent to poison bait, which also kills beneficial insects and negatively impacts birds. Yes Rachel, we are back to killing birds. As for the biodiversity claim, one should usually be suspicious of statements containing words like all, only and never. But the acquisitive pied-piper, the look what I found ecoevangelist who made the comments dare not consider correcting the half-truths for fear doing so would impact the hefty income from book sales and speaking engagements (the prosperity ecology) and because it would make the special healing* message less tantalizing. What would the inculcated worshippers think? Would it shake them from their trance, their willful oblivion? I think not, and for this awakening to happen I suspect the "profit" would have to admit to making inaccurate and misleading (but gainful) suggestions. Again unlikely, but the presentation pictures sure are pretty. And do not let the fact the guidance also appears in book form beguile you. As I have told many people when complimented on having authored a book, so did Hitler. One should consider the source and intention, before swallowing. Alas, (1) the cloaking effect of half-truths makes them more likely to be ingested uninspected, (2) we are prone to jumping to conclusion, (3) we are vulnerable to and influenced by the celebrity associated with authorship and (4) appearing in print does not mean the content was vetted. What's more, I have witnessed some disturbingly biased and incorrect info as well as terrible scientific pier review in academia of all places!

Further complicating the problem, most native plant purists have a warped notion of what native means. A view based on what are mostly artificial geopolitical boundaries (e.g., state, province, county) which generally have little, if any, biological significance. Frequently the question of provenance can and should be of little importance, although I fully understand that lack of trust stemming from our previous actions (i.e., careless import and release) makes it hard to take that consideration out of play. Again, the real picture, an inexorably changing landscape made worse by humans, is not what the purists want to hear, nevermind accept. So, why are the movement leaders, most of whom should know better, not doing more to help set the narrative straight? Perhaps part of the reluctance is fear of losing stature, or cause membership, and it can be hard to give up on dreams . . . to admit the truth when it is contrary to what is desired. I contend if they did it might tempt more people to be realistic thus increasing the possibility of what really needs to happen because, as RZ told us, "the hour's getting late."

Not surprisingly, many of those who espouse native plants are gardeners . . . and gardener, as defined here, is liberally inclusive . . . but there is a chasmic difference between natural areas and gardens. This attempted conflation is a major part of the problem. Unfortunately, most gardeners I know have little, if any, natural area or floristics expertise AND a great many gardeners know far less about plants than they think. While those assertions may sound mean, I would bet on them being true and lay odds. In my rantings book I described it this way, "Most people want to judge but few are qualified" . . . a statement applicable well beyond gardening. See also my Nov 2021 rant. [Here's a quick self-test: Do you know the vegetation in your garden that you did not plant, and how well do you know the ones you did? Knowing implies more than a name.] Moreover, just as lots of large-scale farming practices are ill-suited for the urban landscape, and not sustainable, so is the notion of sticking a "native" species in your garden (e.g., the planting a prairie absurdity) and declaring it/them to be native there (a kind of ecocertification) with an anticipated ability to attract all sorts of native associates from afar. Re the "planting a prairie," what we create is a resemblance, a collection of prairie plants. These beds can be lovely, I have one, but they ain't prairie, although lots of gardeners and nature enthusiasts believe differently. As Aristotle told us more than two millennia ago, "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Additionally, the naive native crusaders abide by the fictitious build it and they will come proposition, the healing* suggestion promoted by the ascendent prophet and his acolytes. A presumed and sort of Genesis effect empowered by wishful thinking. Yet, while a quick and easy solution is enticing, regrettably it is also a fanciful premise (i.e., BS), but many of the supporters have allowed themselves to be absolutely convinced otherwise. The hypothetical remedy (the conclusion) has not been proven, nonetheless it is accepted as absolute truth . . . I suggest in large part due to desperation. Further, I am not alone in finding the too common ask "is it native?" vexatious! Consider this: I occasionally offer a gardening weeds class and about half of the approximately 100 species on the handout I distribute are native!

Here's another thought to ponder, what if the conjurer actually believes the natives healing magic? Answer (1) it makes for a more convincing sales pitch but DOES NOT change the veracity of the supposed, the delusory part of the half-truths and (2) as noted above, this definitely would not be the first time an "it seemed like a good idea" improvement prescription from a wildlife biologist or government agency ended up being environmentally unsound. Some of these previous actions have turned out to be permanently wrong, significant contributors to the invasive problem (e.g., Russian olive, Asian bush honeysuckle and kudzu). Sadly, desire and the inviting but slanted claims are distracting and contribute to the dearth of clear-headed assessment. Here's the question: Can you trust yourself to be receptive to the idea that you may have made a mistake (chose the wrong path) and the followup which is, would you be open to attempting a correction, ASAP?

Compounding the problem, we have been culturally programmed to suspend rationality and skepticism in order to believe the unbelievable. Gladly accepting the indoctrination. Preferring to be ignorant and to live in an invented feel-good world where convenience and mindless entertainment are lord and master. Divorced from Nature and suffering the consequences. Moreover, the followers do not want to admit that they could be wrong, that they could have been deceived, perhaps even complicit in the deception. One can be wrong and certain as well as certainly wrong. I could name several elite biologists, including E.O Wilson (2018 pers. comm.), who in essence have said where's the proof? and that the believers need to reconsider, need to give the matter some thought. Unfortunately, and as noted earlier, many of the native fanatics do not know enough to make an informed judgment. Again, their belief is based on emotion rather than reality. But try explaining this to them . . . the disabuse is perilous. So, to mollify ourselves, we try to find someone / a source to trust, but more often than not we select the message that conforms with what we already believe or want to hear, with the messenger too often being a factor in the acceptance, and commonly we just make things up. Know this, some of the claims made by the native plant proponents are ludicrous . . . confirmation bias on steroids. When those assertions go unquestioned they can (like invasives) grow strong, spread and are more likely to be accepted (illusory truth effect).

How timely: I just re-reread an "earth-friendly native plants" article newly posted by Indiana Public Radio (July 17, 2023) which is loaded with proselytizing native bias and other inaccuracies. I am still shaking my head. When I discussed the article and issue with my friend, super botanist and native advocate Paul Rothrock he suggested that "we need more truth in advertising" . . . less propaganda. By the way, I support the premise of the article, particularly the problem with the HOA form of plant policing since the nightmare called Callery pear is the dominant tree lining the streets of many HOA subdivisions . . . but good objective journalism it is not.

Please understand, you are not necessarily doing a bad thing by emphasizing native plants (I DO!), it merely is NOT the miracle cure* to a serious environmental issue of our own making. and certainly not on the miniscule scale we are witness to. But a simplistic view, an it can be fixed optimism is what most of the believers cling to, have faith in and want. Again, re the want, so do I, but my eyes are open. Asking WHY a lot (thank you education) helps one to see clearly and to make logical decisions. Unfortunately, reality is that human nature can be difficult to curb, thus comments contrary to the "accepted truth" usually are rejected by the believers, or simply ignored. No doubting or analytical evaluation allowed. A prison of belief. Couple that with blame-shifting and a requisite enemy, and here we are. No wonder I am inclined to be misanthropic.

The purists should reserve their animus and evangelistic exotics / them fervor and instead focus their efforts on the aforementioned monsters, our behavior, as well as the preservation of the little truly natural landscape we have remaining rather than fomenting the gullible do good environmentalists and gardeners. Further, we definitely should be cautious with and attempt to control the spread of any species or group with a tendency to be an ecological problem (e.g., many groundcovers, vines, grasses and humans). But the balsam / pansy / boxwood crowd, while not my cup of tea, are NOT committing an environmental crime by planting benign nonnatives. Besides, there are numerous very weedy or otherwise ill-advised native species that gardeners should avoid (revisit the gardening class comment made earlier and see my Sept 2022 rant), and weedy and invasive are not synonymous. Even so, the cultists do not like to be told or reminded of the inconsistencies because they countermand their belief . . . a simple good v bad, a binary us v them, of course excluding themselves (us) from blame. Wanting an answer that may not exist and/or ignoring one that is contrary to their preconceived preference, their want. FACT: the plants associated with human activity have always been species that prefer disturbance (weedy) and, sorry to say, we have gotten very good at creating both more and increasingly severe ruderal opportunities. Again, our nature, which is remarkably like parasitism. By the way, many of these weeds are as or more appealing then the plants we buy. I use many of them as ornamentals.

Another factor which contributes to the unwanted exotics / wonderful natives outlook is our ongoing struggle with trying to control. More specifically, control as it relates to environmental management, which certainly includes gardening. The urge to somehow arrest change (the forever myth) conflicted with the desire to let go, to move on. This change aversion is particularly challenging in an evermore anthropogenically impacted world . . . in flux, but not in a good way. But where to draw the line? Well know this, the purists have a bad case of crippling used-to-be AND I have trouble supporting an ecological salvation movement exhibiting an erroneous and dangerous form of nativism. Weaponized phytogeography courtesy of the Department of Hortofloristics with its compliance personnel, AKA the native plant police, the righteous purists.

Despite my history and role (co-founder and annual meeting organizer) I walked away from the Hoosier version of a native plant society in 2018, after 25 years. I could no longer allow myself to be affiliated with an organization possessing so many members, including some friends, on the slippery slope of puritanism and foolishly being "sucked into a system of hatred." A crusade, a sort of conservative plant nationalism, and this is not the first time Midwest gardeners have allowed themselves to be so aligned (see my June 2022 rant). I will NOT be party to a fallacious natives only miracle cure,* OR the associated blaming of THEM (the foreigners)! The natives only movement has the earmarks of a fake/faith healing cult. Members drawn into the extraordinary belief because the story, a kind of cleansing AND curative act, sounds good (i.e., is desired) so it must be true. Unnwilling to face an inconvenient and unwanted truth. Nor does the fact there are others saying and doing the same thing validate the idea or action. This form of "safety in numbers" and illusory truth makes one feel confident, more willing to speakout and act. Consider this: in the mid 1930s 90%+ of Germans supported the Nazi regime in some way. Many jumped on board since "everyone else was doing it" (conforming) AND because the promised outcome (hate based purification) was desired, thus justified, scapegoating in the process. And the charismatic (but evil and sociopathic) leader was an author.

I kept coming back to what constitutes a cult* when an even more appropriate descriptor came to mind. The term fascism has been around for about a century having first been used to describe the right-wing totalitarianism nationalist regimes of Germany, Italy and Spain. FASCISM is defined as a very intolerant or domineering view or practice and it usually includes a belief in the supremacy of one group. It also is a freedom suppressing subservience system which, as has been pointed out by others, was borne in the right wing of the Catholic church. Accordingly, I decided there needs to be a moniker for the behavior of the us v them plant crowd (i.e., the extreme native plant purists, the ones who can go berserk even over the use of nativars). Thus, utilizing fascism as the root, I suggest the term phytofascism fits perfectly. This neonym is technically accurate but with a sting that hopefully will awaken and induce people be more mindful. -- I used the Catholic church example to point out there can be bad members, undesirable outliers, in a predominantly good / well-behaved group just like with the aberrants ditch-lily (a daylily) and yellow flag (an iris), both beautiful, both invasive. In other instances (e.g., the bean, bittersweet, grass, mint, parsley and sunflower families) many of the members can end-up being unwelcome (i.e., they may not play well with others, takeover types) but (1) it likely will need to be a forced eviction as well as an onerous task and (2) MANY should not be construed as ALL -- no lumping, no THEM, please.

PHYTOFASCISTS - want me to stop raining on your parade then start being rational. Takeoff your blinders. I have experienced the zeal associated with the oblivion and plant-shaming too often. The exclusionary halcyonic world longed-for by the purists is fantasyland AND their rhetoric continues to lean bad. So, what to do with the dogmatic true believers, the ones who are totally certain? The we simply need to believe harder crowd. Given that torture conversion and purge by disappearance are now generally frowned upon, except in some red states and rendition sites :), reeducation should be tried. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that belief perseverance is very difficult to overcome. Extracation, separating reality from "help is on the way" denialism, is extremely challenging. Excommunication might work sometimes but history is filled with examples of ideological "till death us depart,"* since I've made up my mind AND how can I be wrong? I will attempt to both ignore and confront the hardcore purists but will leave the door open since I remain sympathetic having once been a sort of native zealot myself. Moreover, given my bona fides re the issue(s) presented here, the enlightened criticism is difficult for the believers to explain away, thus easier for them to enlist standard defense mechanisms, like turning a blind eye, holding firm and hoping I will be silent (not likely), with my unwanted and challenging remarks viewed as sacrilegious. Admonishing advice from an ostracized defector.

Also know this, I understand the critical importance of true natural areas, the associated synergistic native species (the incredible biodiversity) which make them such, as well as the appeal and necessity of preservation. Natural areas are special. We cannot be whole without them, nor can we make them, although many people have convinced themselves otherwise OR that nature does not matter. THEY ARE WRONG! These aboriginal places are complex and amazingly rich, but threatened and increasingly rare. Some of us deem them sacred . . . more of us should. I stand firm in defense of this natural treasure . . . the homeland. But please understand, a manmade park or garden, no matter how nice, are NOT natural areas. The same management practices, philosophy and expectations often cannot apply. Moreover, know that many awesome conservative obligate invertebrates, part of the essential binding found in natural areas, have a home range measured in meters and will NOT be visiting or residing in our gardens. It has been a decade since my species-rich 500 sq. ft. "prairie" was planted but I am still waiting for the special visitors. Related, there is a lot of pollination BS being presented (as often as not a marketing ploy) and readily gobbled up by the desirous, willing, desperate and underinformed believers. Know this, we may get some of the generalists in our yards and gardens, if we are lucky and smart (e.g., in part by rejecting the utterly stupid "neighborly" Mosquito Joe mentality). As for the suggestion that a multitude of plant associates will miraculously immigrate, good luck with that. The real elixir is wisdom and behavioral restraint, thus allowing intact natural systems . . . not a pined-for, simple and feel-good, post destruction cure via planting of or anointment with replacement parts . . . available online today with free shipping.

Another important consideration is that the soil in much of the urban landscape, and sadly now much agricultural land, is not healthy (often just dirt, lacking organic content, enriched {and poisoned} synthetically) and the plants and associated biota are aware of the difference, the inadequacy. Shockingly, this recognition and effect even applies to many of the now less common field crop weeds of my youth. Humans, by far the worst invasive nonnative, have abused and spoiled Earth in so many locations we are fortunate anything can tolerate the conditions and grow there. What Peter del Tredici, emeritus Harvard and Arnold Arboretum ecologist, refers to as the flora of novel (manmade) habitats. Surprisingly, I was told Tredici's ecological concept was dangerous, a heretical perspective about which the believers ought not be introduced. To which I said, really? and walked away. No thought police for this apostate! Remember, the plants associated with man tend to be weedy and cosmopolitan, not conservative natives, and not everything we break is fixable! Again, the naturalizing taxa we should concentrate on constraining are those capable of overtaking robust tissue (intact natural areas), understanding that this ability can take time to develop (i.e., the potential {the behavior} can morph as the conditions evolve, and they are). The delay between release and the population exploding can be decades. Even so, you can rest soundly tonight knowing that the thousands of different daylilies and hostas will not takeover, but the beautiful and amazing native trumpet vine might.

Again, like it or not, our gardens are an artificial construct (manmade) NOT a real natural area NOR always positively linked to them! What's more, as long as gardeners are avoiding the relatively few nasty nonnative invasive species we should be permitted to select and use plants we want, with a clear conscience, hopefully choosing habitat appropriate taxa and siting them correctly. Those who say or think otherwise can go bonk themselves! And while I am prescribing, we should immediately consider removing a lot of Asian bush honeysuckle, Callery pear, winter-creeper, et al. (see also and especially my Nov 2020 rant Python Vine) but know that these horribles are symptomatic. The real problem (the cause) is a combination of far too many people (and worsening relentlessly), ignorance, denial and bad decisions (often attributable to anthropocentric corporate controlled greed). One of these days . . .
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* Jim Jones' Peoples Temple also was borne in Indianapolis just a handful of miles south from where INP(AW)S germinated. Curiously, Jones' Hoosier cult, which had some appealing ideology, also grew due to a belief in fake/faith healing. The difference, people v landscape. And no one likes to be told they are gullible or might be wrong, thus potentially crushing a dream and bruising the old ego. The devotees sometimes even willing to take up arms or drink the Kool-Aid rather than admit. I wonder if grape improves the flavor of snake oil? By the way, the common grape we eat and drink (Vitis vinifera) is an Old-World plant. A nonnative like almost all our crop/food plants. What is the chance this fact and dilemma will cause malnutrition or starvation amongst the diehard purists? My guess, likely resolved with a large bowl of rationalization, topped with a generous sprinkling of disorienting and unhealthy delusion, then consumed using a big ole spoon.

We all make mistakes. The key is learning from the experience, especially the not again and not so quick. Alas, the learning usually requires change and to admit to being wrong, both of which we mechanically resist thanks to the far too common self-imposed self-reflection prohibition. Alas, we are very good at lying to ourselves thus the introspection and change can be difficult to achieve. Finally, actions have consequences and, as I noted, an environmental reset button is a pipe dream. Here's hoping the atonement is survivable.

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