March 26, 2003 — One gardener's Weed-B-Gon candidate is another gardener's showpiece. One man's dandelion is another man's lunch. One gardener's rampant groundcover enemy is another woman's herbal medicine. Individual experience and ethics determine definition of plants as "invasive" or "noninvasive;" "detrimental," "delightful," or "damaging to a delicate ecosystem."
The V.I. National Park, guided by definitions and mandates in the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, believes it has the pathways laid out for management of so-called exotic plants, and is about to commence a project extending through 2005 to survey, inventory, remove and recolonize plants within its borders, according to a release.
Many plants are "exotics," which is defined as a plant not native before Europeans arrived in the area, roughly late 1400s or early 1500s. One reason for this choice of "Day One" is that many explorers carried naturalists with them who were meticulous about collecting seeds and logging what plants they met upon their landings.
Dan Clark, a National Park "supervisory exotic plant specialist" who is spearheading this project, prefers a triad classification, with an intermediary group of plants he terms "naturalized" between the natives and the exotics. Naturalized plants, found throughout Tropical America, Africa, and India in particular, are plants that most likely were introduced, usually by migrating or traveling populations, but in time distant and beyond printed memory — between 500 and 2,000 years ago. Cassava, maize, papaya, and genip are examples of these early introductions.
Exotics have been introduced accidentally (as in food shipments or on tourists' shoes), by nature (birds flying far), or deliberately (such as specimen plants brought home by botanists or plantation owners, or plants introduced for their beauty or adaptability). Flambouyant and ginger Thomas are examples of this category.
Often an introduced plant, ironically, has been transported for the exact attributes that make it become a pest — its tough survivability, drought resistance and tolerance of poor dirt. This, in fact, is one working definition of a "weed."
Tan-tan, or wild tamarind, is a formidable enemy of plant variety: It practices a form of chemical warfare, a chemical action of its roots "poisoning" the nearby soil for other plants, even when it's repeatedly cut back.
But native plants can be aggressive invaders, too: consider ketch 'n' keep.
Two excellent Internet sites, both out of Florida, are of visual and data interest, for many of their invasive and exotic plants are also ours. These are:
— the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. This comprehensive site includes a section with color photographs of each of 343 native and nonnative species found in Florida, and distribution data coverage includes Virgin Islands.
— Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, a nonprofit coalition of interested scientists and professionals.
The first part of the V.I. National Park survey, working with existing habitat mapping of the Conservation Data Center at the University of the Virgin Islands, will accumulate the numbers and distribution of exotic plants that have been identified as aggressors. Clark and the park have enlisted the help of a number of residents and experts; he names Eleanor Gibney as "an invaluable asset, with years of experience in plant identification and knowledge of locales of native plants." Toni Thomas of the UVI's Cooperative Extension Division on St. Thomas and co-author of "Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John," and Gary Ray, plant ecologist and professor at UVI, who has a definitive book on Virgin Islands native plants in progress, have been enlisted. Brian Daly, research specialist at the university's Agricultural Experimental Station on St. Croix, will contribute to the St. Croix coverage. Clark's early work beyond the surveying will be to answer the question: Why is the invasiveness of this particular plant "bad?"
The presence of exotic plants in U.S. national parks has been documented to cause tremendous natural resource damage by disrupting the delicate ecological balances of native plants, animals, water and soil that have been achieved over eons, said a release. Clark's expertise, he says, is in the field of ecological systems.
After the survey and inventory phase is completed, an area will be chosen for a pilot project in removing exotics and recolonizing with selected native plants. The particular need here, as Park staff sees it, is the possibilities for coastal habitat restoration and consequent shoreline protection. Although the original plan was to use the Hawksnest Beach area, after receiving public input a decision was made to use areas at Cinnamon Bay, where "quadrats" will be freed of exotics, allowing natural recolonization by native plants, and monitored with data gathering to establish feasibility of the plan.
This cooperative research project has funding from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Tropical and Subtropical Agricultural Research Program, secured by the University of Florida, to conduct applied ecological research on the effects of exotic plants in the park. Cooperators in the project include the National Park Services' National Exotic Plant Management Teams, the University of the Virgin Islands' Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service on St. Thomas, Conservation Data Center, Agricultural Experiment Station on St. Croix, and knowledgeable local citizenry. Dr. Randall Stocker, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, is the principle investigator of the research project and Clark is the field project coordinator on St. John.
The aim of all this is to enhance the management of natural resources, as mandated by that 1916 law: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." But it is obvious, Clark notes, that "the park needs to commit to perpetual maintenance of historic/cultural plants." The jury will be out on this project and its conclusions for some time.
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