Interloper, Not Welcome by Everyone

As I was coming down a hill on a recent hike in the woods, I came upon an open area where the path was lined with clumps of shrubs whose leaves shimmered in the early fall sunshine. The leaves — green on their topsides and hoary underneath — were coming alive as breezes made them first show one side, then the other.
Autumn olive along trail
The plants’ beauty was further highlighted by the abundant clusters of pea-size, silver flecked red (rarely, yellow) berries lined up along the stems. I know this plant and, as I always do this time of year, popped some of the berries into my mouth. The timing was right; they were delicious.

Many people hate this plant, which I’m sure a lot of readers recognized from my description as autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). What’s to hate? The plant is considered invasive (and banned) in many states in northeast and midwest U.S. “It threatens native ecosystems by out-competing and displacing native plant species, creating dense shade and interfering with natural plant succession and nutrient cycling.”
Flowers of autumn olive
But there is a lot to love about this plant, in addition to its beauty. In spring, about the middle of May around here, the plant perfumes the air with a deliciously sweet fragrance. And poor soil is no problem. An actinobacteria (Frankia) at its roots takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that plants can use.

That ability to make its own fertilizer is just one reason this plant was loved before it was hated. Native to Asia (where the plant is not considered invasive), autumn olive was introduced into the U.S. and the U.K. about 200 years

Autumn olive fruit

 ago for their beauty and to provide shelter and food for birds, deer, bees, racoons, and other wildlife. The plant isn’t stingy with its garnered fertility. The soil near plants becomes richer, all to the benefit of nearby other plant species. As such, autumn olive has been planted to, for instance, reclaim soils of mine tailings, and, as interplants, to spur growth of black walnut plantations (by over 100 percent).


But let’s get back to me — and you — eating the berries. The berries are high in lycopene and other goodies so most sources tout the health and healing benefits, after admitting that the berries are astringent and tart.
Yellow and red autumn olive fruits

But, for most autumn olive plants, that’s only if they’re eaten underripe. Right now around here, some plants are offering their dead ripe berries that are neither tart nor astringent, but sweet. Don’t mind the single seed inside each berry. Just eat them also; they’re soft. That window of good flavor is fleeting, lasting only a couple of weeks.

And eating the berries, seed and all, will slow the plants’ spread, pleasing invasive plant people.

So Bad(?) Yet So Good

Are invasive plants really bad? Or just bad for us? Planet Earth likes plant growth. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, sequestering carbon, blanket the ground to limit soil and water erosion, and help support micro and macro communities of organisms.

Natural landscapes and their associated natural communities aren’t static. They change as they evolve. No doubt, humans have altered many natural successions. That might spell disaster for our aesthetic or economic sensibilities, but is not “better” or “worse” for our planet.

Scandinavian Dreams

Noncontroversial is another red berry that I am now picking and enjoying. That’s lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). If you are Scandinavian, you probably just smiled and a dreamy look came into your eyes.Each year, thousands and thousands of tons of lingonberries are harvested from the wild throughLingonberry fruitsout Scandinavia, destined for sauce, juice, jam, wine, and baked goods. A fair number of these berries are, of course, just popped into appreciative mouths. Most everyone else only knows this fruit as a jam sold by Ikea.

I grow this fruit and am now enjoying the fruits of my labors. I planted it both for its good looks and its good flavor, which got it a chapter in my book Landscaping with Fruit. (Autumn olive also made it in.) Let’s start in spring, when cute, little urn-shaped blossoms dangle singly or in clusters near the ends of the thin, semi-woody stems rising less than a foot high. These urns hang upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) and are white, blushed with pink. They’re not going to stop traffic from the street, but are best appreciated when plants are grown where they can be looked at frequently and up close—such as in the bed at the front of my house.

Lingonberry flowers


If you miss the spring floral show, you get another chance because lingonberries blossom twice each season. This second show, appearing in mid- to late summer on young stems, bore the fruits I am now enjoying.

Lingonberry sports evergreen leaves, the size of mouse ears and having the same green gloss as those of holly. Like holly, they retain their lush, green color right through winter. New shoots sprout above the spreading roots and stolons to so plants eventually make an attractive and edible groundcover. 

The fruits that follow the flower shows couple just enough sweetness with a rich, unique aroma so they are, if picked dead ripe, delicious plucked right off the plants into your mouth or mixed with, say, your morning cereal. They are pea-sized and somewhat of a show in themselves. The bright red berries hang on the plants for a long time, well into winter, making a perfect Christmas decoration in situ.
Lingonberry fruit on plant
Lingonberry is native to colder regions throughout the northern hemisphere. This fruit is the Preiselbeere of the Germans, the kokemomo of the Japanese, the puolukka of the Finns, the wisakimin of the Cree, the airelle rouge of the French, the keepmingyuk of the Inuit—and the lingon of the Swedes. In English, the plant parades under a number of monikers, including partridgeberry (Newfoundland), cowberry (Britain), foxberry (Nova Scotia), mountain cranberry, and rock cranberry.

If you grow lingonberry, give it the same soil conditions as its relatives, blueberries, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons. To whit: Well-drained soil that is high in organic matter, very acidic, and not too fertile.


A garden cart improves any garden, and I’m especially enjoying using my cart, now in its third decade of use. This cart has hauled hay, manure, weeds, and old vegetable plants to the compost bins, and finished compost from the bins to vegetable beds and fruit trees. It’s hauled stones for wall building and heavy locust posts that get notched and bolted together to become arbors and trellises.
Look closely: Hardware cloth in bed
A good cart has two heavy duty, bicycle-sized tires sitting just about midway across a sturdy plywood bed surrounded by three sturdy plywood walls. Tossed rocks, the scraping of a shovel, and an occasional jab with the pitchfork have eaten away that plywood over the years. Not anymore, and that’s why I’m especially enjoying using the cart.
A few months ago, I decided to replace the plywood bed, which by then had few plies left. Instead of replaying the scenario from the last replacement, about 15 years ago with exterior grade plywood, I used pressure-treated plywood, which is more rot-resistant. And next, to fend off the constant scraping of shovels, rocks, and other tools and materials, I laid 1/4 inch mesh “hardware cloth” over the plywood base and screwed it down.
Today, shoveling wood chip mulch out of the cart to spread around the base of newly planted mulberry trees, no little voice in the back of my mind was reminding me that each shovelful was also scraping off a bit of plywood. I’m expecting to get good mileage with the new bed. Stay tuned; I’ll report back in 30 years.
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a wildflower often mistakenly thought to be phlox (which has 5 petals instead of the 4 of dame’s rocket, has put on a great show of white, lilac, and pale purple blossoms this year. Now a dark cloud has passed over those cheery flowers.
Dame’s rocket, a European native that used to be cultivated in American gardens, escaped from our gardens many years ago to invade road sides, meadows, and cultivated fields. In some places, this comely flower is billed as “invasive.” “Left unchecked, this beautiful, yet lethal plant will wreak havoc on the natural environment, threatening the survival of native plants and degrading habitat and water quality,” writes restoration ecologist Steve Apfelbaum.
Call me irresponsible, but I still like dame’s rocket. I welcome it into my flower beds and into my meadow. In addition to beauty, the flower perfumes the air with a delicious, sweet aroma.
I have been too blasé about some other invasive plants in the past. I remember praising garlic mustard for its flavor. What was I thinking? The plant is now all over the place and doesn’t even really taste very good. Garlic mustard gets ripped out of the ground wherever I see it, in and around my garden at least. Perhaps I’ll eventually feel the same about autumn olive, which I enjoy for its fragrant blossoms in spring, its silvery leaves in summer, and the oodles of tasty, small red berries it bears in autumn. Thus far, I find Japanese stilt grass, yet another invader, attractive.
Sweet, pretty dame’s rocket is allegedly going to contribute to the alleged $200 billion of damage for which invasive plants are responsible. It’s even suggested that the plant might have some resistance to the herbicide Roundup.
The whole invasive plant threat has, in my opinion, been blown way out of proportion. Our landscapes, wild and cultivated, are not — and should not — be static. Over time, extant species might become more or less prevalent and new species might move in.
And just what does “native” mean? A few hundred feet from the alluvial soil of my garden in the Walkill River valley, the ground slopes up sharply to the craggy, rocky outcroppings of the Shawangunk Ridge. Plants native up there, such as mountain laurel, aren’t native down here. Furthermore, research has shown that non-native species sometimes have a positive environmental impact (see, for example, Mark Davis et al in Nature 474, 153–154, 2011).
Obviously, we need to try and control invasive plants, whether they are native or non-native, when they cause intolerable disruption of the environment or threaten our well-being. But change is inevitable and usually not bad. Quoting Michael Pollan, turning the “ecological clock to 1492 [or any other date] is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot.”
Rose de Rescht
What a great year for roses, even if I’ve always contended that I didn’t like the roses. Actually, I didn’t and don’t like the roses that are most commonly grown, which are hybrid tea roses. The plants are gawky, something you’d plant out of sight just for cut blossoms, and the flowers are stiff, formal, and jarring in color. They’re also very susceptible to all sorts of pests.
William Baffin
I do like the roses I have growing and which are presently drenched with blossoms. The super-hardy William Baffin rose, from Canada is sporting single, large, bright red flowers. Amber Sunblaze is notable for salmon-pink blossoms on a plant whose foliage stays glossy, green, and healthy all summer long. A couple of David Austin rose blossoms look like cupfuls of pastel-colored crêpe paper.
My favorite of all the roses, one given to me as a cutting many years ago by herbalist Ann Solomon, is Rose de Rescht. At least that’s what it’s alleged to be. Rose de Rescht is supposed to have more than one bloom period each season, though, and mine has never rebloomed. Then again, mine never flowered as well as it has this year, a couple of years since I moved it to its new and more congenial surroundings.
Whether or not my Rose de Rescht really is Rose de Rescht, it’s now covered with blowsy, soft pink blossoms that send their fragrance a few feet from the bush. Everyone that smells the blossoms says something to the effect “Now that is a real rose smell.” And the rose blossomed just in time this year to provide abundant flowers for a very special wedding.