Native Plant Fanatic

Native Plant Fanatic

My neighbor, Amy, just pulled into her driveway as I dumped another load of Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica) branches along our sidewalk. The branches are covered in cascading, bell-shaped, white flowers that give Pieris japonica its other common name: Lily-of-the-Valley Shrub.

As Amy came out of her car, I slowly pushed the empty wheelbarrow up my driveway so I’d still be there as she walked to her door and we could exchange hellos …and I could cool and casually add: “It’s a pretty shrub, but it doesn’t support wildlife.”

Amy is a wonderful neighbor. We rely on each other for pet care, neighborhood news and advice. So, when she sees that I’ve killed a beautiful flowering-shrub, I want to explain myself as a wildlife steward… not just a native-plant fanatic.

Most in our neighborhood are conventional gardeners, Amy included. I let her know replacement shrubs were coming in early April…. In case she was worried about the now-exposed house foundation. Amy graciously replied: “Oh, nice.” Before heading indoors, she asked after Dave who had just had surgery.

Whew…I’m not on the nutty neighbor list. If I want to wrestle 20-year-old roots out of the ground that’s my choice.

Six years ago, Dave and I took out highly invasive Euonymus alatus (Burning Bush) and Euonymus fortunei (Emerald ‘n Gold or Wintercreeper). We made huge brush piles that just barely met the town size limit (of eight feet long and four feet into the road).

In their place we planted pencil-thin cuttings of Northern Bayberry along with gallon-sized Black chokeberries and Elderberries. The native shrubs looked small and pathetic compared to the mature shrubs we killed.

I wasn’t too concerned about what the neighbors thought because invasives are so clearly a threat. Local woods are laced with Vinca, Oriental Bittersweet and escaped Multiflora Rose. English Ivy are clearly choking mature trees all over my neighborhood.

Kill an invasive, you feel like an ecological hero.

Kill an exotic in full-bloom, you feel like the neighborhood eccentric.

Pieris japonica Brush Pile
Pieris japonica as a beautiful brush pile


Exotic shrubs sequester carbon, some birds even nest in them. One or two creatures may take a nibble. Ornamental exotics are kind of like High School mean girls. They look super cute, but everything is about them. Cross them, and the cute girl becomes a bully.

Also, as a gardener, someone who nurtures life, it pains me to kill a plant. I googled “Pieris japonica + wildlife benefits” to make sure I wasn’t killing a plant that had some value. Gardeners World said it supports bees. Over 13 years I have never seen a bee even land on the four Pieris shrubs in the WILD garden. It’s one clear benefit: deer resistance. Turns out its poisonous. Truly, nothing eats it.

I never saw an insect feed on Pierus japonica.

It takes a LOT of work to take out an established shrub. I had to summon up a stronger motivation to kill this beautiful, harmless, Japanese shrub.

That’s how I came across Lisa Gould’s post summarizing the research on sterile exotics and how they can sometimes cross-pollinate or revert — through their suckering shoots — to a more viable wild type and so make seeds… and so invade.

Yet, Pieris japonica is not listed on’s invasive plant list. Not even on their watch list. There is always the potential that a mean-girl will later stab you in the back. But Pieris japonica appears to be more a harmless mall mannequin than a mean-girl.


As I hauled out the wheelbarrow, shovel, and pruners I had to understand my true motivation. The exotics that remain in the WILD garden always kind of irk me. Here is a plant taking up valuable water, soil and sunshine that only sustain their own roots and leaves.

Exotics are not part of the local ecosystem. They are not supporting the goals of the WILD garden to steward the land. I think of every exotic as a wasted opportunity.  I truly am a native plant fanatic.


I prune the branches so I can get my shovel close enough to the trunk without twigs poking my legs. The roots are shallow and branch out sideways (no deep tap roots on a Pieris). But the previous owners had landscaping fabric and small stones installed along with the foundation plants. Each time I try to dig, my shovel is stopped less than an inch in by small rusty-colored stones. It’s impossible to dig deep. What the hell were they doing there? Do they add a mineral or texture to the soil? I googled “small, red garden rocks” and found that Home Despot calls them “red slate chips”. Years ago, the “red slate chips” would have been on the surface; expensive rock “mulch” to suppress weeds. Who are they kidding? Weeds find their way through concrete. The previous owners must have regularly sprayed the red slate chips with herbicide as weeds poked through.

Slowly, slowly I find a major root line, inch the shovel blade along the root and shift the blade side to side till I can just get past the annoying “chips”, position one foot, then jump up to land all my weight on the front-rolled steps of the shovel to sever the root. Each time I do this maneuver I worry I’ll lose my balance because of a stone that sends me flying off the shovel steps.  I visualize an emergency room visit and try to be more careful as I pry up another root.

I take regular breaks from the semi-dangerous shoveling to haul branches and roots to the curb.

Hours later I’m done just as Amy drives up. I slowly move my empty wheelbarrow past the remains of the Pieris japonica that has bloomed for the last time and worry that my neighbor thinks I’m a bit crazed. She’d be right.

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