Foreign invasive plants continue to take over Georgia forests and grasslands, and one, Asian privet, now infests more than a million acres in the state, according to recently released Georgia Forestry Commission statistics.
Privet’s hold on the state grew from an estimated 637,916 acres in 2009 to 1,115,920 in 2015, according to the forestry commission’s latest “Dirty Dozen” list of the top 12 non-native invasive plants.
Kudzu, Georgia’s most famous invasive, is only No. 6 on the list, at 35,981 acres, a fraction of privet’s spread and an even smaller fraction of Georgia’s overall forest acreage of around 24 million acres.
But they’re all big problems for conservationists and government agencies trying to preserve what remains of Georgia’s natural landscapes, and both the GFC and conservation groups are trying to ramp up efforts to push back the alien tide.
One of the forestry commission’s biggest priorities is actually one that’s not spread widely, at least not yet. Cogongrass is only at No. 12 on the Dirty Dozen list in Georgia, but it’s spread widely in some states that didn’t act to stop it before if got to be unmanageable, like privet.
Privet, the same plant that forms the famous Sanford Stadium hedges, is native to China, brought here for ornamental landscaping centuries ago.
It’s been spreading ever since, but now it and some other invasive plants seem to have reached some kind of tipping point, said GFC Forest Health Coordinator Chip Bates.
“There are points in time where different invasive species hit critical mass, where this stuff really goes crazy,” he said.
The latest dirty dozen list confirmed what Georgia Botanical Society President Heather Brasell had been seeing with her own eyes, she wrote in a recent Botanical Society newsletter.
One of the Botanical Society’s missions is preserving natural habitats, and members give many hours in conservation projects to weed out invasives.
Brasell has been working to root out invasive plants on her own land and in conservation projects for two decades. For the first 10 years, she thought she was making progress in getting rid of privet, chinaberry and wisteria, Brasell wrote. But in the last 10 years, it’s felt like a losing battle as more and more invasive species get footholds.
Foreign invasives have the ability to simply blot out native species, with serious and sometimes unanticipated results. Insects, birds and other animals native to Georgia have evolved along its native plants, and when the foreign plants take over, those animals can lose food sources or foraging grounds.
In one recent research project, University of Georgia researchers found that the No. 2 plant on the list, Nepalese browntop, also called Japanese stiltgrass, may actually reduce toad populations by giving spiders a better place to hide.