A Contributing Opinion Writer based in Nashville who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
“NASHVILLE — My favorite spring flower blooms along the leafless branches of the lowly serviceberry, a small tree with varieties native to every state except Hawaii. In the old days, the serviceberry’s simple, five-petaled blossoms heralded springtime itself.
Appalachian tradition holds that the tree got its name because it bloomed just as snow melted on winding roads, just as mountain passes cleared. Serviceberry flowers meant that circuit-riding preachers would be along soon to perform the weddings and funeral services winter had long delayed.
As with all beloved wild plants, these harbingers of spring have many common names. What we call a serviceberry here in Tennessee is what people in other regions call by names like shadbush, sarvis, juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum and chuckley pear, just to name a few. By whatever name they are locally called, the flowers were a welcome sight for the generations who came before us. Winter was over at last. Bright new life could begin.
Serviceberries are not much of a welcome sight anymore. So thoroughly have they been displaced from our cultivated landscapes, and for so many generations, that most Americans are unlikely to recognize this very American tree. For us, springtime means flowers that evolved for ecosystems in Europe and Asia, not for American yards.”
“. . . Wild creatures need wild plants to survive, but drive down any lane in any suburban neighborhood — or any landscaped city street — and what you are apt to see is a gorgeous, blooming wasteland where the flowers feed nobody at all.
Worse, such plants often go hand-in-garden-glove with an entire ethos of yard maintenance that relies on poison. Between the herbicides designed to kill weeds (including early-blooming wildflowers) and the insecticides designed to kill anything that crawls (including native pollinators), the typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.
And not just for native plants and animals. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters that some researchers say can have a devastating effect on human health, and may be linked to A.D.H.D., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, infertility, cancers, just for starters.
As if that’s not enough, some of the exotic plants we’ve introduced into our formerly functioning ecosystems actually do more than thrive in our built landscapes. Some of them are so well adapted to their unnatural homes that they crowd out the plants that belong. In the American South, where our climate is so perfectly suited to plants from Asia, there is an easy way to know whether many plants are native or exotic: Drive past a forest or wooded city park in the very earliest days of springtime. Any tree or shrub that is greening up or blooming then almost certainly doesn’t belong. In March, the woods here are filled with blooming — and highly invasive — Bradford pear trees, while the buds on the serviceberries are still tightly furled.”