Searching the brush-covered terrain intently, ignoring the sweat in their eyes and the gnats in their noses, members of a mountain patrol leapfrogged each other along the margin of a one-lane road. They gripped their weapons with both hands as they moved deeper into enemy territory.
One pointed into a deep ravine on the right.
“What about those way down there?”
“Those are all dead,” came the reply.
It was an exclamation of vindictive satisfaction. One more platoon of alien plants wouldn’t be ambushing any innocent California shrubbery.
The group of seven mostly middle-aged women, armed with shovels, were on a search-and-destroy sweep through the Santa Monicas for the California Native Plant Society, which wants the state cleansed of “exotic” flora. By that, the society means any plant that wasn’t here before the Spaniards.
Throughout the United States and around the world, similar groups are devoted to the elimination of immigrant exotics. More than 40 particularly troublesome alien species are on the loose in Southern California, including garden pretties that escaped into the wild, weeds that come from seeds mixed with imported grain centuries ago, and odd growths that may descend from hitchhikers in the intestinal tracts of zoo animals.
For six hours the women worked through Solstice Canyon, on land owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, digging up milkweed thistle, wild mustard and other invaders.
To this determined patrol, the only good alien was a dead alien.
“Look at that!” cried Halli Mason. “A giant horehound.”
Mason, who was christened Hannelaure in the Hartz Mountains of Germany (“but Americans can’t pronounce Hannelaure correctly, so in this country I’m Halli”), uprooted the bush, which was about three feet in diameter.
“Smell the aroma,” she said. “They used to make candy or cough drops or something from this stuff.” She pitched the doomed bush, fragrant with an old-fashioned apothecary smell, into the ravine.
Angelika Busi, at 35 the youngest of the group, also is German-born. A graduate botanist, she worked on similar projects in Europe before moving to San Pedro with her Italian husband.
Yes, she conceded, if she were doing the same job in Europe, she would be protecting some of these same species as natives instead of killing them. In Germany, she said, she uprooted non-German birch trees from bogs and fought an unappreciated battle against “a kind of Chinese tea rose that people planted on the sand dunes by the North Sea so they would stabilize the sand. Oh, I hated these roses.”
Beauty is no defense. Poison oak gets protected as a native. But delicate yellow wildflowers most people mistakenly call buttercups “are very hard to get rid of, even with a power mower,” one woman observed.
“There’s one of the new things,” said Betty Schnaar of Reseda, 45, a librarian. “The ones that got Doris so upset when they started creeping in.”
Doris Ann Hoover, 65, generalissimo of the alien-plant commandos, heads the “escaped exotics” committee of the society’s Santa Monica Mountains Chapter.
The new invader is a euphorbia. “When we found the first ones last year, I was accused of taking out a native plant, which would have been very harmful to my reputation,” Hoover said.
A botanist rescued her, she said. “It was native, all right--native to the Mediterranean and Africa.”
Why not live and let live? Why not amnesty for the undocumented flora?
“Why do we try to preserve certain cultures, like the Eskimos or some Filipino tribes?” Hoover asked rhetorically. “Because we want to preserve our own history.
“Well, we want to preserve certain species that are unique here and can’t compete with these foreign plants.”
With no local predators to eat or attack them, the aliens can upset the ecosystem by doing too well. “When these weeds win, our native plants lose,” she said. The weeds may wipe out native plants with yet-undiscovered pharmaceutical or other uses.
“Botanists should be able to see how the flora of this region developed. And people go out in the parks and think they’re seeing nature and actually they’re seeing this European weed pit.”
Part of their mission is to teach forest and park rangers and fire departments what plants not to protect. And sometimes they have to explain themselves to fellow nature-lovers, coming upon them wreaking havoc in the brush, who think they’ve discovered a bizarre cult of woodland granny vandals.
After three years in Solstice Canyon--only one of their projects--they see progress, with alien plants replaced by natives they grow. Mason pointed to a hillside golden to the horizon with alien mustard blooms. Will they tackle that? she asked.
“If I live long enough,” Hoover vowed.
Driving home, through miles of enemy-held meadows, Mason and Jo Kitz, 57, of Woodland Hills stopped at Malibu Creek State Park, where they are trying to save a 45-foot oak from an encircling Chinese “tree of heaven"--the botanical equivalent of the Hydra of Greek legend, a dragon that grew two heads whenever one was chopped off.
The mother tree sends out lateral roots from which new trees pop up. “What looks like a grove of dozens of trees is actually one big tree and when you cut them down, more keep springing up,” Mason said.
They thought that they’d dealt a death blow to the oak’s besiegers last fall by girdling them--stripping bark and the cambium layer from a circle around the trunk. That kills most trees eventually.
Kitz sliced the bark of a Chinese tree with a kitchen knife.
“Eeek, it’s green,” she flinched.
The Thing From Beyond The Sea Lives.
“Well,” she said, as she got back into her car. “Next time it’s chain saws. “