Virginia has between 300 and 350 documented invasive plants, but only 14 on what is called the state’s “noxious weeds list.” Two northern Virginia legislators, Delegates David Bulova and Paul Krizek, have introduced bills, now moving through the General Assembly, to strengthen the law and slow invasive plants’ spread.
Invasive plants are plants introduced intentionally or accidentally by people into a region into which they did not evolve. Many are harmful to natural resources, humans and the economy. Invasives typically grow and spread rapidly and produce seeds prolifically.
“Plants are considered invasive if they spread out of control, dominating the local environment and crowding out native plants,” wrote Kathy Reshetiloff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Because these plants have been introduced into an environment in which they did not evolve, there are no natural predators, parasites or other controls to keep them in check.”
Common invasive plants in Northern Virginia include English ivy, running bamboo, Bradford pear trees, tree-of-heaven, oriental bittersweet, privet, porcelain berry and stilt grass. The National Park Service estimates that many Virginia parks and preserves typically have between 25 and 34 percent invasive plants. Invasive plants are present in over 100 million U.S. acres, an area around the size of California, states a Fairfax County Park Authority brochure titled “Invasive Backyard Plants.”
“Native plants have co-evolved with wildlife for many years, resulting in unique relationships between insects, birds and other animals,” explains Virginia’s Agriculture Department website. The Plant NOVA Natives website concurs: “A plant is native to our environment if it evolved within the local food web and has the intricate relationships with animals and other plants that this implies.”
Once native plants are established, many can reduce maintenance costs, pollution and water use. They can also help reverse declines in insects, birds and other wildlife. Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan states that there are 883 species critically imperiled or in decline. “Habitat loss is the single greatest challenge impacting these species,” the plan says. The world has lost more than one-quarter of its land-dwelling insects in the last 30 years, a trend some call an “insect apocalypse,” reported Science magazine in 2020.
Delegate David Bulova’s bill, HB 2096, which sailed through the House of Delegates on January 31 on a 99 to 0 vote, has several provisions. It requires the state agriculture board to develop a list of invasive plant species and regulations requiring commercial entities involved in proposing or installing plants to notify property owners of any proposed plants on the state’s invasive plants list; prohibits state agencies from planting, selling or propagating those plants except for scientific or educational purposes; and authorizes the board to adopt regulations addressing permits to move, transport, deliver, ship, offer for shipment, sell or offer for sale any invasive plant.
Delegate Krizek’s bill, HB 1998, approved by the House Agriculture Committee, directs state agencies to prioritize native plant species and to take steps like identifying state properties for native plantings and preparing guidance to rehabilitate state properties degraded by invasive species.
Delegate Krizek argues that the state owns many large properties, from prisons to universities, that could be enhancing habitats with native plants and that the state should set an example of responsible environmental stewardship. The Virginia Department of Transportation has installed pollinator habitats at some highway rest stops.
Why New Laws?
Most ecologists consider invasive plants to be a top threat to the country’s biodiversity, along with habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change. Biological diversity encompasses the genes, species, ecosystems and ecological processes of which they are parts, nature’s variety. Many invasive plants form monocultures and outcompete native plants. Biodiverse ecosystems can support many life forms, including humans.
There are two keys to halting the spread of invasive plants: prevent their introduction and control those that are here, Chris Ludwig, told a state invasive plants workgroup in 2021. He is the former chief biologist for Virginia’s natural heritage program.
Current Virginia laws allow the sale of most invasive plants. In December, Trader Joe’s in Old Town Alexandria was selling English ivy. On February 4, Home Depot in Hybla Valley was selling English ivy and labeling it “Tropical Foliage.”
A University of Massachusetts study found, “61 percent of 1,285 plant species identified as invasives in the U.S. remain available through the plant trade, including 50 percent of state-regulated species and 20 federal noxious weeds, with vendors in all the lower 48 states,” according to the December 2021 American Gardener magazine. The same survey found that 1,330 nurseries, garden centers and online retailers are offering hundreds of invasive plants as ornamental garden plants.
The DCR list of 90 species has no regulatory authority. The Agriculture Department’s listing process is cumbersome, bill advocates maintain, and current law allows “commercially viable” invasive plants to be sold.
Since in many instances, retailers and customers do not know which plants are invasive, providing information will help them make better choices. Bulova’s bill requires companies that install plants to inform their customers if plants are invasive.
Legislative measures to require plant labels at point of sale have failed to gain traction. In 2022, the legislature did approve Delegate Krizek’s bill requiring the Virginia Department of Agriculture to prepare information for plant retailers that explains the value of native plants and the harm of invasive plants. That information is here https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/Invasive%20Species%20Brochure_Trifold_122722.pdf. Krizek’s original 2022 bill required the Agriculture Department to develop a model label for plant sales and a model sign for retail vendors explaining native plants’ value and invasive plants’ harm.
“The Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) is grateful to Delegates Bulova and Krizek for their bills encouraging the use of native plants and prohibiting the use of invasive plants by state agencies,” commented Nancy Vehrs, president of VNPS. “We must do all that we can to combat invasive species while we still have a fighting chance.”
In a 2021 workgroup created by the General Assembly to curb invasive plants, most industry representatives resisted changing Virginia’s current laws.
The Virginia Nursey and Landscape Association did not respond to our request for comments on the bills before press time.
The Virginia Agribusiness Council’s website states that the organization “supports the funding of programs and resources to aid in the research and eradication of invasive pests, plants and diseases.” The group opposes “the labeling of widely used and economically important plant forage species and ornamental plants as ‘invasive’ or ‘noxious’ without reasonable science-based evidence of their invasive status and the potential economic impact of both the eradication and/or control of such species by appropriate state body or agency and the economic impact of controls on the growth and sale of ‘noxious weeds.’”