Lake Erie Groups Target Invasive Decorative Plants

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Bamboo-like plants that grow taller than adults have choked out native plants in a marsh that once teemed with life at Maumee Bay State Park along Lake Erie.

Wild flowers at the park have disappeared. Migrating birds have gone elsewhere. The parkland has changed so much that naturalist Dana Bollin no longer leads tours past the common reed grass towering along Maumee Bay's boardwalk.

"I hate to spend an hour talking about invasive plants," she said.

Environmental groups hope to slow the spread of decorative but invasive plants by persuading nurseries to stop selling them and instead promote native species.

Big-box retailer Meijer Inc. announced in March it is removing two invasive trees — Norway maple and Lombardy poplar — from its stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

In California, a partnership of nursery owners and environmental leaders is working on a campaign called "Plant Right" that will help gardeners find native plants suited for their regions.

Only a small percentage of plants sold in nurseries are nonnative troublemakers that crowd out other plants and rob animals of their food sources.

However, environmental groups cite the ease with which these invasive plants can end up in the hands of gardeners or landscapers.

Some, like Norway maples and Japanese barberry, are big sellers.

Others are not a problem in most places, such as baby's breath. Few gardeners know that it is taking over from the natural grasses that help stabilize sand dunes along Lake Michigan.

"It's a cute name and you think it's so harmless," said Melissa Soule, a spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Environmentalists hope getting information to consumers will lead them to embrace native plants.

Meijer stores in the Midwest now have brochures in their garden departments promoting native plants and tags on plants and trees that are recommended by The Nature Conservancy.

"We can reach everyday shoppers and help them understand there is a choice that can be made," said Meijer spokeswoman Stacie Behler.

A few states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have banned the sale of dozens of invasive plants. New Hampshire's ban on Norway maples, Japanese barberry and burning bush took effect this year.

Over the last three years, nursery owners, landscape architects and environmental leaders in California have developed a list of about 20 invasive plants that they want to stop.

It will be up to nursery and store owners to decide whether they will follow the recommendations.

"It can be good for business, and it will be good for the environment," said Terri Kempton, of Sustainable Conservation, an environmental group based in San Francisco.

Nursery owners and retailers are getting involved, in part, because they want to act before other states attempt to ban plants. The industry also recognizes how fast these problem plants have spread and how much is being spent to control them.

"There's no denying that some of the plant materials we've sold over the years have become problems," said Bob Falconer, executive vice president of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

The federal government spent $631 million dealing with invasive plants and animals in 2000, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report.

California, Florida and Hawaii have big problems with the invaders. Florida spent $54 million in 1999 on trying to control nonnative plants, the GAO report said.

The Nature Conservancy's work with the horticulture industry in Florida led Lowe's Cos. to stop selling about 50 invasive plants at its home improvement stores in the state. Other nurseries in the state also have pulled problem plants.

A big key in getting stores to stop selling the plants is showing them just how destructive they have become, said Kristina Serbesoff-King, invasive species coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.

"They are willing to listen if it's based on sound science," Serbesoff-King said.