Invasive plant traits that help them survive in Massachusetts

Hi everyone, I’m doing an environmental project for school and my topic revolves around invasive plant traits that help them thrive in Massachusetts. I was hoping to look for more insights on the physical attributes of invasive plants that help them survive. Thank you!

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Take Russian Olive as an example:

  • It can fix nitrogen in its roots,[12] enabling it to grow on bare mineral substrates.
  • With a combination of shade tolerance, high seed viability, annual fruit production after 10 years of age (Lesica and Miles, 2001), and transport of the seeds by animals and water; Russian olive can infest a riparian area rather quickly when compared to native trees. [Source]
  • Russian olive seeds can maintain relatively high viability (77%) even after 28 years in dry storage under ambient conditions. [Source]
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I don’t know anything about plants in Mass, but I have a general knowledge of invasion biology. I would suggest approaching the assignment by searching for a list of common invasive plants in Mass. I bet that the state government or Mass universities might have these. You could pick a representative sampling of some specific examples, and dig a little more into what helps each be invasive. There should be some general info available via Googling “Why is XXX invasive in the United States” or similar. You can probably find a few interesting examples for your project.

For the reasons that they are invasive, you probably don’t need to limit yourself to just Mass - anything that supports an invasive plant in the northeastern US (or Canada too) probably applies. Good luck with the project!

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Usually, the same traits that make gardeners prefer them.

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Massachusetts…I’ve never been there. I guess there is winter. One of the factors is Cold hardiness. Some perennial plants will not survive when the temperature drops below a number. and it could be toxicity of the plant to foraging animals and insects. Evolved from same temperate climate or from some mountains but in different regions of the world. or simply a highly adaptable plant. Ability to seed abundantly. Ability to survive in man-made environment, such as in green houses as weeds. Wonder if global warming has helped some subtropical species survive better in temperate regions.
Japanese knotweed seems like a weed. It has herb potential. Plantago major, burdock if these exist over there.

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I’m trying to track invasive species within Massachusetts on a local project on Guernsey Sanctuary. There might be some interesting traits to track on within the observations received on that project.

https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/invasive-vs-non-invasive-biodiversity-in-wellesley-s-guernsey-sanctuary

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I would also suggest looking into the types of habitats some of the local invasives prefer. Often invasive plants do better than natives in more disturbed areas and may have some adaptations to survive being cut/trimmed, handle poor soils, or steal resources (i.e., oriental bittersweet can basically steal light from native trees and shrubs by growing on top of them).

Another small note is that many invasive plants are relatives of natives and may simply do the same job better when freed from the natural constraints of their original habitats (while the native species still experience their constraints). These constraints could be in the form of predators, weather, or other factors. The oriental bittersweet I mentioned before is an asian counterpart to the native American bittersweet which is much rarer in the state: https://www.mass.gov/doc/american-bittersweet/download#:~:text=HABITAT%3A%20American%20Bittersweet%20prefers%20open,the%20canopy%20foraging%20for%20light.

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If you wish to see what others have written on the topic: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=invasive+plants+of+new+england&btnG=

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To follow up on cthawley’s suggestion, here is information on the plants the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has prohibited from sale in the state because they are so invasive: https://www.mass.gov/massachusetts-prohibited-plant-list

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Often invasive plants do better than natives in more disturbed areas and may have some adaptations to survive being cut/trimmed, handle poor soils, or steal resources (i.e., oriental bittersweet can basically steal light from native trees and shrubs by growing on top of them).

I think this from @jmillsand is key! Often it’s not that invasives do better in the habitats where native plants evolved (although that can be the case), it’s that they do better in the new environments modern settler society* creates, namely areas of constant disturbance, pollution, and/or nutrient deficiencies.

*Note: I’m talking about settlers because it’s important to understand that North America was not “undeveloped” or “untouched” before white settlement, nor do modern Indigenous people necessarily interact with the environment in the same way settlers do. The concept of “wilderness” often erases or elides the presence of humans–of civilization–in these landscapes prior to colonization.

An additional factor is that a lot of invasive species–as well as native species that have prospered with the rise of industrial development–are ones that prefer “edge” habitat where one type of landscape meets another. The way settler society in the United States builds creates a lot of edge habitat. I drew this to demonstrate:

Here we have a small forest (the green blob). The dark green border is edge habitat where it meets grassland. The light green is interior forest habitat. A some point a settler purchases the land and builds a house (brown) in the middle of the forest. They clear some space around it and cut a dirt road (yellow) so it can be accessed by car.

As development goes this is relatively limited–most of the light green area is still there. The dark green edge habitat, however, has exploded in size. It now lines the house’s yard and both sides of the road. Proportionally, the increase in dark green is much bigger than the decrease in light green. A more mathematically inclined person could probably point you toward the principle at work here, but I’ll just leave it that.

Hope this helps!

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We’re doing a good job so far – suggesting resources for this student to consult; just a reminder that since this is a school assignment, we need to be careful not to cross the line into effectively doing the assignment ourselves.

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Consider also that invasive plants don’t know that they are invading. Traits that make them aggressive spreaders (eg: Japanese Knotweed) will be the same traits that aggressive natives have (eg: Pokeweed).

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Thank you so much! I never thought about temperatures. I will take a look at that. So far I’ve investigated the genus, origin of the invasive species, and petals.

This is very interesting! I did not know that invasive plants are relatives of natives! Will look into it. Thank you!

Not all of them will be, but many are. Best of luck on the assignment!

Interesting, I think you raise an amazing point on how invasive species aren’t always necessarily biologically superior, but rather the environment that humans create can favor them. That’s an interesting and important way to think about it.

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