Attention Brooklyn gardeners: Beware the killer weed

The Brooklyn Paper
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Brooklyn is losing the ground war.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether the U.S. is losing the War in Iraq (um, come to think of it, I’m not sure they can), but Brooklyn has become Ground Zero for an entirely different battle — and our brave heroes at home are getting slaughtered.

Take Fraxinus americana. The other day in Prospect Park, this proud son (or was it daughter?) of Brooklyn was minding his own business when a vicious killer Lonicera Japonica started choking him to death.

You may know Lonicera japonica as Japanese honeysuckle, but I know him as Trouble — with a capital T and that rhymes with V and that stands for “vicious invasive killer weed.”
That’s right, patriots, Brooklyn is under attack by dozens of invasive species, many of which have slipped across our borders under the seemingly innocent guise of looking nice in your aunt’s garden, filling up that flowerpot on your stoop or, even more insidiously, being on display at the Botanic Garden.

Indeed, in the park the other day, green-helmeted soldiers from the Prospect Park Alliance spotted a few rogue saplings of Kalopanax pictus, an invasive tree that chokes out native species.

And the only known source of Kalopanax pictus is — cue the cheesy horror movie music — the Brooklyn Botanic Garden across the street!

You don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blew.

“We’re under attack by these killer species and they’re winning,” said Mike Feller, who battles invasive species for the Parks Department.

Experts like Feller say invasive weeds are a threat to biodiversity, undermine habitats for birds, and destroy our forests. And Public Enemy #1 is the Norway maple. Sure, you love his shade, but his extra-long mating period and his fibrous root system is literally choking the life out of Brooklyn’s native trees like the locust tree (also known by its nom de plume, Robinia pseudoacacia — geshundeit!).

Rounding out the park’s Most-Wanted List are the pungeant garlic mustard, a weed that is spreading faster than lice through an elementary school; creepy newcomer Polygannum perfoliatum, the so-called mile-a-minute vine that has started showing up on the big sledding hill behind the Tennis House; the porcelainberry, a seductive-but-deadly vine often ordered from catalogues because of its beauty (it’s the mail-order bride of the invasive weed world); the aforementioned honeysuckle — don’t turn your back on this kudzu-of-the-rising-sun; Japanese stilt grass, which has been spotted in the Quaker Cemetery (you know this war clearly is hell if even the Quakers are in the fight); and phragmites, those thin reeds that have taken up residence along the entire lakefront. The only way to fight them is by smothering them under huge sheets of thick black plastic (thank goodness we’ve discarded the Geneva Convention).

Even the famous tree that grows in Brooklyn — Ailanthus altissima, or “tree of heaven” — is a pernicious Asian weed that must be stopped!

“In ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ it’s a metaphor for hope because it grows through a crack in a sidewalk,” said Anne Wong of the Prospect Park Alliance. “That’s great as a symbol in a book, but it’s an invasive weed tree.”

Wong admits that the invasion is so massive that she has considered the nuclear option, but, alas, rejected it because of the collateral damage.

“We really don’t like to spray pesticides everywhere,” she said. “When we use them, we prefer to dab a few drops onto a vine’s roots.” (Clearly, Wong is a woman who doesn’t love the smell of napalm in the morning.)

Instead, Wong and her crew spent 2,263 man-hours last year pulling up, cutting and dismantling terror cells throughout the park. Yet the invasion continues. These bad seeds simply cannot be reformed.

The fault lies not in these plants, but in ourselves.

America is truly the land of opportunity, whether you’re a hard-working immigrant looking for a job, or a heartless botanical bully looking to pick on some defenseless sap.

“They come over here and reproduce like mad because there’s no natural predator,” Wong said. “Back home, there must be a fungus or worm that keeps them in check.”

And even though I’m ready to lock up all these foreigners in internment camps and throw away the key, let’s be clear about our enemy: Not all “foreign” species are invasive, Wong said.

“Magnolias are not native, but they’ve proven to be quite good citizens,” she said.

OK, so you magnolias can stay. But I’m calling for our borders to be sealed once and for all. If some Morus alba thinks he can have a better life here than back in China, I’m sorry. Believe me, it’ll be the best for both of us.

After all, Wong said, many of our most beloved species, like goldenrod or the mighty pin oak, are considered invasive weeds overseas.

We have met the enemy and it is us, too.

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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