An invasive plant is defined by context. A plant considered a noxious weed by one person or group may be used for medicine, weaving material, pigment, or ceremony by another.
In many cases, plants now considered invasive in our bioregion, like English ivy, Scotch broom, gorse, Himalayan blackberry, or tansy, have merely responded to opportunities created by human changes to the environment. Yes, they’ve ended up out-competing native species. But calling a plant “invasive” or “noxious” can limit us from discovering the gifts intrinsic to its existence and eliminate the possibility for a relational exchange.
In my opinion, when it comes to abundant plants that need to be kept in check, we would be better off putting them to good use. This would allow us to access what those plants have and are able to give, including medicine, food, fibre, colour, and more.
I often think about the removal of invasives as a literal act of decolonization. By this, I don’t necessarily mean restoring an ecosystem to an “untouched” state (or some imagined ideal balance) by eradicating the foreign species overpowering native species. That task would be impossible. Rather, I consider it a chance to relate to plants that have a history of migration from elsewhere and to examine their patterns of expansion and their similarity with human behaviour. It is an opportunity to connect deeper, to read the landscape and its ancestry—along with my presence in it—through acts of stewardship that also provide a sense of belonging.
From the perspective of human borders and definitions, my own identity (born in the Colombian Andes, now living on Vancouver Island) can often be defined by labels like immigrant, colonizer, uninvited guest, refugee, or settler. Acknowledging my level of connection to this valley and what brought me here, recognizing a history of growing relationships that can inform this lived experience, is a starting point.
And then, by taking an active role in defining the kind of presence I want to have in this place I call home, I can move away from having a label imposed on me. Defining my identity through stewardship of the land is my way to honour and relate to its ancestral and traditional keepers.
I work with plants to establish reciprocal relationships and help others to feel empowered to do the same. For me, this work is about a gift exchange with the interspecies that live in the landscapes I interact with: getting to know them, tending to them, and looking for those places to love me back. Having experienced what I define as cultural orphanage as an immigrant, I have encountered a comfort in my relationship with the land, a welcoming embrace that helps me reclaim my own cultural significance through embodied skills for creative expression like basket-making or creating pigments from plants that transcend human boundaries of country, culture, lineage, or ethnicity. Traces of my identity are simultaneously blurred, reaffirmed, and redefined by these exchanges.
Ecological restoration positions us to remember who we are and how we relate to the place we care for, examining our role in it rather than seeing nature as simply a beautiful backdrop, or, even worse, as merely a resource. Through actions like pulling carpets of English ivy to make space for wildflowers and other native plants, we can express affection and restore diversity while indirectly restoring ourselves, too. I can hear my thoughts and also hear the voice of the land when I am doing this work. The key point is to restore kinship and have a presence in this land that embraces the complexity and the paradox of a settler longing to be recognized by the territory.
Plants are like people and, as ethnobotanist Nancy Turner once said, “Human faces are so different and you can recognize so many of them. If you can do the same with plants, they can become your friends.” Next time you are in the forest, start by introducing yourself to that place, and then start recognizing plants by their name. Observe them or look them up with a plant ID app or a book.
But more than anything, be curious about who they are, where they come from, and what they can do, and let them teach you the multiple lessons they have for you.