Visitors to the downtown Champaign area last month may have noticed an odd addition to the One Main Development landscaping. Over the course of May, an increasing number of mysterious white trees appeared out of nowhere. Who placed these ghost trees? Where did they come from?
The stark colored white tree trunks were added to landscaped areas to model the rapid spread of an invasive species, which are exotic or non-native species that have been introduced into our landscape in one way or another and successfully reproduce and spread to a point that they threaten our native ecosystems. Many of us are utterly unaware of the serious threat these plants present to the native plant diversity of our natural areas.
Thankfully, there is a group of trained ecologists, volunteers and other plant enthusiasts that focus on invasive plant issues and fight these destructive plants on a daily basis in central Illinois. The Headwaters Invasive Plant Partnership (HIPP) was formed in 2015 to raise awareness of the invasive plant issue by making sure area residents have access to information in order to recognize problematic plants and their negative effects on the environment. The group has produced excellent informational materials (such as the Invasive Plants and Beautiful Native Alternatives brochure), sponsors educational events and organizes volunteers to hit the front lines in the battle against invasive plants.
HIPP is the first Cooperative Weed Management Area (CWMA) in central Illinois, although many other CWMA’s exist across the US. CWMA’s typically rely on voluntary participation from government agencies, non-profit organizations, private landowners and concerned citizens. The HIPP mission focuses on reducing the impact of invasive plants in central Illinois, including everything from awareness and early detection of invasives to rapid response and control of invasive plant populations. HIPP currently covers eleven counties and features 22 members, including area park districts, forest preserves, soil and water conservation districts, the University of Illinois Extension, land trusts, and others.
Mike Daab, HIPP Chairperson since its inception, brought the inspiration behind the May 2018 project in downtown Champaign. “A few years ago I saw some trees that the Chicago Park District had painted, and I really liked how they stood out and it drew my attention to the project,” said Daab. “I figured I could use a similar technique to start a conversation about invasive plants in the Champaign area.”
Daab and the dedicated folks at HIPP took the idea and ran with it. Over the course of May, which happens to be Invasive Species Awareness Month in Illinois, they placed a gradually increasing number of white, leafless trees in downtown Champaign landscaping to draw interest from the general public. The group assembled a wonderfully descriptive brochure to accompany the demonstration, which served to educate passers-by on invasive plants.
So, you may wonder why you should be concerned with invasive plants as a homeowner or gardener in our area if you aren’t involved in restoration of natural areas. The simple truth is that many of these extremely threatening plants to our native ecosystems originated as ornamental plants in our landscaping. Although each exotic plant has its own specific characteristics and relative risk to natural areas, the list is long and includes many you may know such as: Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), and burning bush (Euonymus alatus) to name a few.
The take home message is that we need to be more responsible for plant material we purchase and exercise or right as consumers to carefully select the plants we purchase. Since all of the invasives I listed above are currently for sale at local retail outlets, it’s really important to understand the plant you are taking home.
Kaleb Lukens, the newly hired HIPP Program Coordinator, offers some expert advice if you would like to be more proactive in stopping the spread of invasive species, “Gardeners should aim to identify the scientific name of what they're planning to buy, which can be used to search an Illinois invasive species list.”
“It can also be helpful to check guides and find suppliers that sell natives,” says Lukens. “This way, gardeners are not only ensuring that they aren't part of the problem, but also helping to be part of the solution. Both an invasive species list and a native plant purchasing guide can be found on our website, Ilhipp.org.”