The invasion of the plant regulators

January 6, 2014 -  By
Gregg Robertson

Gregg Robertson

The issue of government regulation of invasive plants has been relatively quiet for the past several years. But recent developments are placing invasive species regulations back on the forefront of our industry. Thus, the issue is resurging.

Connecticut: To regulate species or cultivars?

A decade ago, Connecticut became one of the first states to regulate plants determined to be invasive. If a plant species is declared to be invasive, then possession, propagation, transportation and sale can be banned in the state.

A recent opinion by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) chief counsel holds that if a plant species is declared invasive, then all of its cultivars also are invasive.

The nursery industry in Connecticut argues cultivars of plant species with invasive tendencies are being bred to lessen or eliminate those invasive characteristics. Therefore, a plant cultivar should be judged on its own merits and not by the character of its parent species.

If this opinion stands, it could wipe out the sale of many cultivars of species with invasive tendencies in Connecticut, such as cultivars of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

New York: Invasive species regulations pending

The state of New York is in the process of adopting regulations that ban a variety of invasive species, such as algae, fish, plants and animals. Japanese barberry is among the plants that are proposed to be banned. Nurseries will have one year to cease all production of Japanese barberry under the rules.

The public comment period closed Dec. 23 on these regulations. Click here to see the regulations and the list of species proposed to be banned.

Pennsylvania: A ban on aquatic plants?

In Pennsylvania, the state Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) is considering banning the sale and possession of all obligate aquatic plants—those needing to grow in water—in the state, except for a small “white list” that it would approve.

Such a move by the PFBC would bring the water gardening segment of the Green Industry in Pennsylvania to a screeching halt. The water gardening segment currently sells thousands of different plant species and introduces hundreds of new cultivars each year. All would have to be evaluated and approved by the PFBC before they could be sold, if this regulation goes forward.

Why landscape contractors should care

So why should you care whether some plants are being banned in a select states? Can’t you just plant something else?

The answer is a bit more complicated than that.

First, states are reacting to some real ecological problems caused by certain plants that have been popular in our industry. Japanese barberry is one example. The ever-popular burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides) are others.

These species have the common characteristics of being prodigious seed producers and aggressive growers. When they escape into natural areas, under the right conditions, they can take over and displace native species.

When they displace native species they disrupt the ecology of the place they invade. Plants are at the base of the food chain and native plants as well as the insect populations they support have co-evolved and depend upon each other. Birds eat the bugs and so on up the food chain. No bugs, no birds.

So even if your state does not regulate invasive plants, you should know what you are planting and its tendency (or not) to be invasive. It’s a matter of being ethical about plant selection and making sure you are not creating problems down the road. Right plant, right place.

Second, well-intentioned advocates who have more zeal than common sense drive many of these initiatives. They often know little about our industry and what hardship their actions may cause. They also often don’t know plants. These regulatory efforts need professionals from our industry at the table. Get involved.

Third, if you get involved, demand that the process used to place plants on banned lists is based on sound science and includes economic considerations. Too often, these initiatives are simply a group of people sitting around naming plants, or a list borrowed from another state or the Internet.

New York is getting high marks for using a process that is based on scientific evidence to place a plant on its list. The state of Ohio is working closely with the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association and, likewise, has developed a scientific protocol for assessing a plant species’ invasiveness.

Conclusively, it’s likely that someday when you go to your favorite nursery to pick up plants for a job, you’ll find they are deemed illegal. Find out now what’s going on in your state and don’t be surprised.

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at

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