There is a long history of botanists and horticulturalists traveling around the world in search of new, beautiful and useful species of plants. It is an essential part of our nation’s history to both send native American species to Europe, and to seek out and grow imported species here.
You’ll hear wonderful stories of early colonists risking their lives and freedom to bring back some rice, or a tea shrub, or some other potentially productive and lucrative plant encountered on their travels, to put into production here in the ‘New World.’ Tony Avent of Plant Delights near Raleigh is one of many contemporary horticulturalists still importing new plants from elsewhere.
One of the trees imported from Asia was the white mulberry tree, Morus alba. They were supposed to form the beginnings of a silk industry here in Virginia. Sadly, the silkworm industry never took off in Virginia. Worse, the white mulberry became an invasive species, even hybridizing with our native red mulberry. But who knew that would happen in the Eighteenth Century?
Another Asian tree imported during the Colonial era, to potentially support silkworms, is the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera, formerly known as Morus papyrifera. You may have noticed these odd-looking trees lining Francis Street near the Colonial Capitol building. They are not considered invasive, but the silkworms didn’t care for them. In China, they were used in the production of early paper products.
It may take only a few decades for a wonderful new plant introduction to cause enough problems in its new environment to find itself reclassified as an invasive nuisance plant. The very qualities that make a new introduction exciting and marketable may also make it harmful to its new ecosystem.