Once McLean resident Lauren Taylor learned how to identify invasive plants in Fairfax County’s parks, she couldn’t stop noticing them.
They take a variety of forms, from shrubs like Japanese barberry — distinctive for the red coloring and spatula-like shape of its leaves — to creeping vines such as wintercreeper and English ivy that essentially strangle trees.
Inspired by a trip to help build a national park in Chile’s Patagonia region in 2014, Taylor is among the over 3,000 volunteers who help clear invasive plants each year from the Fairfax County Park Authority’s 24,000 acres of land at 65 different sites under its Invasive Management Area (IMA) program.
“I love to hike and camp, and I was oblivious that everything I was walking by was invasive,” Taylor told FFXnow on a walk through McLean Central Park. “It turns out that everything that’s green is not good, and it was breaking my heart to realize that all of this that you see is destroying our ecosystems and harming our wildlife.”
With an annual budget of $300,000 and just one full-time staffer, the IMA program’s daunting mission seems almost Sisyphean when individuals can walk into a Home Depot or their local nursery and buy the same plants that volunteers are trying to root out.
After spotting wintercreeper, Japanese barberry, and other invasive plants at the Home Depots in Hybla Valley and Merrifield, Taylor launched a Change.org petition earlier this summer urging the company to end sales of all species listed as invasive in the U.S.
The petition had accrued nearly 50,000 signatures, as of last night (Monday), garnering support from advocacy organizations like Blue Ridge PRISM, Plant NOVA Natives, and the Urban Forest Alliance, according to a news release.
While major chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s aren’t alone in selling these plants, Taylor says she wanted to “start at the top and get the 800-pound gorilla to agree to do the right thing,” noting that Home Depot has ceased sales of plants identified as invasive in California since 2015.
“At least 35 plants that Home Depot is selling have been identified as invasive in one or more parts of the United States,” Taylor said. “So, Home Depot, I’m sure they sell hundreds, if not potentially thousands of different [units] of plants. We’re only asking them to stop selling 35.”
Home Depot says it adheres to Department of Agriculture regulations for each state, including for online sales. Breeders have also developed some sterile versions of popular plants so they can be grown without spreading.
“We follow the Department of Agriculture’s guidelines and their definition of what’s invasive and where, and we comply with that,” Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith said.
Noxious weeds versus invasive plants
However, standards for what lands on each state’s regulatory list — typically known as a noxious weed list — vary wildly. California, for example, has over 100 noxious weeds, while Virginia lists just 14, even though its Department of Conservation and Recreation recognizes roughly 80 species as invasive.
Unlike the noxious weed list, which exempts plants that are “commercially viable,” the Virginia Invasive Plant Species List has no regulatory authority.
Environmental advocates had hoped that would change when the state assembled an Invasive Plant Species of Virginia work group last year to consider possible policies to eliminate invasive plant sales. But ultimately, the group’s only recommendation on the subject was to create a work group to define “commercially viable.”
The group also recommended developing signage on the risks of invasive plants that retailers would be encouraged — but not required — to use, and allocating a portion of retail sales taxes to support invasive species education and management and incentivize the use and production of native plants.
“You can see how the environmental organizations were massively disappointed with no real tangible results that came out of six months’ worth of meetings,” said Taylor, who wasn’t part of the group but followed the meetings.
Invasive plants in Fairfax County
While invasive plants spread from many sources, the most common species in Fairfax County are typically ones used in landscaping, according to IMA Program Manager Patricia Greenberg, who estimates that about 70 to 75% of the county’s parkland is occupied by invasive plants.
There are some healthy parcels of land, such as sections of Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, but Greenberg says the presence of invasive plants can vary drastically even within an individual park based on an area’s proximity to development and whether volunteers are regularly working there.
“Most of the healthier parcels of land are not surrounded by homes,” she told FFXnow. “The unhealthy land, most of the parks that are super-urban, they’re surrounded by homes, and when you walk towards or into that neighborhood, you can see the burning bush or the English ivy or some of the typical invasives in their landscape bed.”
The county is currently updating an invasive plants assessment that was completed in 2016. Greenberg has also submitted a request to increase the IMA budget to $450,000 in order to hire another staff member, who could help manage the program’s 73 volunteer site leaders and allow sites to be treated with herbacide twice a year instead of just once.
While the park authority has no official stance on regulating retail sales, Greenberg advises homeowners to remove any invasive plants from their gardens and yards and replace them with native species.
“It really is about the person choosing what plant they’re looking for in the nursery,” Greenberg said. “It’s so easy at Home Depot or anywhere else to just be like, ‘Oh, this is pretty,’ and not even think about ‘What will this do in my yard and in the forest nearby?'”
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