The term “invasive” aptly describes many species of plants and wildlife that have become more than a nuisance in many areas. Introduced for their appearances, potential benefits or even by accident, these species can take over where native plants and animals once had free rein, often crowding these out by taking over their habitats or food supplies. Brought into an unknown environment, they have no natural enemies or defenses against local climate, which can devastate the local landscape, making it hard to eradicate the invader, and the species themselves.
Organizations throughout the country have actively begun promoting the use of native plants and the removal of invasive species over the last few years. Local governments have also encouraged the use of native plants on city property instead of importing outside species.
The city of Irving, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, began a project in 2021 to revitalize its city hall entrance. Completed last year, the project encompassed improved drainage, sidewalks and landscaping that included native grasses and flowers.
Through its “Think Green … Be Green” initiative, the city of Irving also encourages its more than 200,000 residents to consider including native plants in their landscapes and gardens. Irving’s website lists reasons why native plants are preferable to imports and how to plan a garden with them.
“Using plants that are native or adapted to the Irving area promotes a beautiful yard year-round while conserving water,” it states. Natives also have natural adaptations to droughts, common in that area of Texas.
Additionally, native plants help bring native wildlife to the area and keep them there. Creating spaces for pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are especially welcomed. Partnering with the Native Wildlife Federation, the mayor’s office began a “Garden for Wildlife” program to educate citizens on the use of native planting to provide habitats for butterflies, bees and birds, with plant recommendations like the copper canyon daisy, Texas frogfruit and native milkweeds. These spaces can provide a haven for wildlife like monarch butterflies, whose populations have decreased significantly in the recent past.
Sanibel is both a city and the name of the island on which it rests off the west coast of Florida. The contrast between it and Irving couldn’t be greater. A barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, it boasts a much smaller population of over 6,000 people. Director of Natural Resources, Holly Milbrandt explained that when the city was incorporated in 1974, “residents wanted to be in charge of the island” and its development, resulting in the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
“It was unique for its time — unique even for this time.” She continued, “It was based on the ecological system; looked at the plant life and asked, ‘What is reasonable development for this area?’ That really set us down this path.”
Today in Sanibel, “two-thirds of the island is protected in conservation,” Milbrandt reported. Invasive species, such as the melaleuca tree and Brazilian pepper plant, which once had flourished on the island, have been severely decimated due to eradication programs from years prior. Though they still exist in Sanibel, neither is as problematic as they previously were. Also, property owners are required to maintain a minimum of 75% native plants on their land, and the beach dunes must be 100% native plants.
Milbrandt said, “They’re our first line of defense against hurricanes.”
The city of Sanibel maintains a policy of only using and maintaining native plants on government property. Known as the Native Plant Demonstration Garden, the grounds around city hall won the Florida Native Plant Society Award of Excellence in 2022. Tours are offered by the Vegetation Committee twice a month for visitors to view the gardens, and classes are held there for vegetation and nature contractors.
The main advantage that natives have over invasive species is twofold, according to Milbrandt. First, those plants need very little water and can tolerate Florida’s long dry season. Secondly, they do not require fertilizers, which often run off into water supplies, making their way into the Gulf of Mexico.
“They’ve adapted to the local issues. Nationwide, there is an overuse of fertilizers, which leads to algae blooms,” Milbrandt said. “We have problems with algae bloom, which creates red tide — hundreds of fish die and are washed up on shore. It’s heartbreaking.”
This adaptability also extends to hurricane resistance, extremely beneficial in an area often ravaged by hurricanes. When Hurricane Ian tore through the area last year, Milbrandt reported that even the native plants looked windburned and scraggly until the rainy season began this June, but survived better than non-native plants would have. The gumbo-limbo tree, in particular, boasts a unique survival feature — it drops its branches in the high winds of a hurricane.
Another Florida city, Boca Raton, began a similar project on its beaches. Beach naupaka, oyster plant and bowstring-hemp have become a problem on the coastlines of Boca Raton. Partnering with the Institute for Regional Conservation, the city is looking to eradicate these invasive pests and instead replace them with native species — sea lavender and inkberry in particular — hoping to repopulate both species. Two beaches have been targeted for this: Red Reef and South Beach Parks. Volunteer days have already taken place to allow community members to become involved in this process. By removing invasive species and planting native ones, these and other cities hope to reclaim the landscape, transforming it into what is best suited for the geography and climate in the region.