Words to use, avoid in describing invasive plants and animals

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Immokalee Bulletin/Dale Conyers: Orchid tree is occasionally found growing in disturbed sites in the central and southern peninsula of Florida. It is native to tropical Asia but escaped from cultivation. Bauhinia variegata blooms in the spring.

By: Brad Buck

Most people want their yard to look good, but they likely don’t know the differences between an “invasive” plant and a “native” one, say University of Florida researchers.

That’s why Basil Iannone and several of his UF/IFAS colleagues have come up with seven words to use and five to eschew so we can all be clear about the types of plants and animals that either help or hurt our ecosystems.

You can find the terminology and the definitions of all the words in their paper, published in the Journal of Extension. Here are a few of the key terms outlined in the paper along with their definitions.

• “Native vs. nonnative”: A native species is one that evolved in a specified geographic area, whereas nonnative species have evolved elsewhere.

• “Introduced”: A species that has been brought to a new location by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally.

• “Invasive”: The species must be non-native, introduced and cause or be likely to cause environmental and/or economic harm to humans.

These terms are especially important in many occasions, but they’re critical for consumers to understand when they go to the store to buy plants.

“I suspect they’re just buying plants that will look good in their landscape without full consideration of longer-term environmental impacts,” said Iannone, an assistant professor of landscape ecology in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

Invasive plants and animals cause $120 billion in damage nationally each year, according to a study published in 2005 by scientists at Cornell University. In Florida, such invasive species include the Burmese python, lionfish, the Asian tiger and yellow fever mosquitoes, the air potato, Brazilian peppertree, cogongrass, hydrilla and water hyacinth.

Add that to the $45 million spent to manage invasive plants in Florida annually, and you’ve got a costly problem that can be helped by educating the public.

Shannon Carnevale, an agent for UF/IFAS Extension Polk County and a co-author of the paper, said it’s important to give the public terminology it can understand, especially with complex subjects like invasives.

“My hope is that these terms will help us communicate with the public. I’m hoping people will recognize the term ‘invasive’ and take it as a warning,” Carnevale said. “I hope they will think twice about planting it, purchasing it as a pet, or releasing it into our waterways.”

To help you identify whether plants and animals are invasive, native and other key words, contact your UF/IFAS Extension county office. You can also consult the UF/IFAS Assessment of Nonnative Plants and the Florida-Friendly Plant Database.

Jeff Hill, an associate professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences and a co-author on the paper, said aquatic species present their own set of issues with terminology and definitions.

“Consistent use of terms will help anglers better understand the issue of invasive species, assist in reducing new species introductions and aid in detecting new invasions,” said Hill, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Lab in Ruskin, Florida. TAL is part of the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. “Lionfish are clearly invasive in Florida’s marine waters and consistent, directed public education has been vital in helping reduce their impacts.”

In addition to the general public, the UF/IFAS faculty defined the terms so UF/IFAS Extension faculty, park and natural resource managers, horticulturists, farmers, gardeners, landscapers and others can understand and appreciate the nuances between the words.

The list of words applies to all invasive species of plants, animals and pathogens, and therefore, it applies to your yard.

However, planting invasives does not comply with the principles of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ (FFL). Those include “Right Plant, Right Place.” There are many nonnative species on the FFL list, but they are not invasive.

“This terminology can help FFL Extension agents teach the public about those plants that are ‘invasive’ and help to educate stakeholders on why the removal of these species from landscapes is needed,” Iannone said. “There are still many people who have invasive species in their landscaping.”

Many landscapers are also confused about what constitutes an invasive plant versus, say, a native plant that grows aggressively, he said.

“There are too many terms pertaining to biological invasions,” Iannone said. “While academic debates about how to use terms persist, practitioners -- such as those managing invasive species -- struggle to manage them.”

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