The renegade plants of China

David Lindeman - Contributing Columnist

My mother loved honeysuckle.

We had a bunch of it in our back yard. She loved the way it looked in the spring when it bloomed. She loved the fragrance when it bloomed. She loved it when the berries attracted all kinds of birds.

I’m guessing if she were around today she might not be all that fond of some of my friends. They hate honeysuckle with a passion.

It’s one of those stories that starts out innocently enough. Honeysuckle bushes were brought to this country from China, Japan and other parts east as ornamental plants. Birds loved it. People loved it.

But then along the way, people discovered something. Honeysuckle was turning up in all kinds of places we didn’t want it. It spread everywhere and wiped out native plants. It turns out that while birds love the berries, they actually have very little nutritional value. (One of my friends calls honeysuckle berries “Skittles for birds.”) Honeysuckle became almost impossible to control.

It certainly happened that way in our back yard. I live in the house where I grew up, and I have some monster honeysuckle bushes back there. I am always afraid that I will go out to mow some day and get swallowed up by renegade plants from China.

Honeysuckle is now categorized as an invasive plant, and lots of people are trying to eliminate it. And it’s not alone.

I recently found out (with the help of my friends) that flowering pear trees are an invasive species. That’s right, that cute little Bradford pear or other flowering pear tree in your yard is acquiring a bad reputation.

Those trees were brought to the U.S. about 100 years ago from China (hey, I see a trend here!). They weren’t supposed to be able to reproduce but over the years we’ve grafted them and moved them around and — presto! — suddenly they started turning up in strange places where no one planted them. As it turns out, they have started to take over some areas of our environment, squeezing out other plants and generally making nuisances of themselves. Plant experts in Ohio will tell you the best thing to do with an ornamental pear is cut it down before it can do any damage to the surrounding area.

Here’s another problem that came to this country from — any guesses? — China. It’s called the tree of heaven. You’ve probably seen them around. They can grow to a height of 80 feet. This is a kind of super villain tree. Its roots release a toxin that kills the surrounding vegetation. It grows faster than most trees and one tree can release 350,000 seeds a year. And it doesn’t help to cut it down. When you do that, it just sends out multiple sprouts and suckers and you have an even bigger problem. It’s the hydra of the plant world.

Apparently, the only way to really stop it is chemical warfare, which opens up a whole different problem.

Some non-native plants behave themselves when they come to America. Others just can’t seem to handle the freedom. Even burning bushes, which are native to, that’s right, China, can become invasive and wipe out native vegetation when they escape from your flower beds. Yes, I have those in my yard, too.

All the bad stuff isn’t from China. You’ve probably been to a park in recent years and seen volunteers pulling out a green, weedy plant with little white flowers. It’s kind of cute-looking, and you might wonder what is going on. Well. It’s garlic mustard, introduced from Europe as a medicinal and garden plant. The only trouble is, when it gets into the wild it pretty much wipes out everything in its path.

I love being outdoors but now when I go into my backyard I’m worried there’s a master plant conspiracy out to get me. Occasionally when I get enough energy and trick my sons into coming over, we’ll tackle a honeysuckle bush or two, but there’s still a long way to go. I think I can keep the burning bushes confined to my beds, although maybe I should put in some claymore mines to make sure they don’t break out. Meanwhile, emerald ash borers (From China! Can you believe it?) have destroyed all my ash trees. If only they would eat honeysuckle berries, they would all die of malnutrition and we’d all be happy.

I’m not sure where the next attack will come from, although most of the damage is our own fault since we bring this stuff from other places without knowing what it might do to us.

I know I am going to do one thing, though: I’m not planting anything else from China. Well, except for maybe gingko trees. They are from China, but there’s always an exception to the rule.

David Lindeman

Contributing Columnist

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at