Nico Cellinese: Master of Invasion

Nico Cellinese is the curator of the new exhibit, “Landscape Under Siege: Invasive Plants of Connecticut” at the Peabody Museum. She spoke to the Magazine’s Carolyn Kriss about the exhibit, our failing war against Eurasia and the merits of being invaded by insidious plants.

What prompted the mounting of the “Landscape Under Siege” exhibit?

Members of the Greater New York Chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators own the 33 paintings and etchings of the “Landscape Under Siege” exhibit, and they recently contacted the Peabody to see if we would mount this traveling collection. We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to introduce the concept of invasive plant species to the public. New England is in a state of crisis with its plants. Not so much from invasive species but certainly from non-native varieties. One third of the plant species are non-native.

And non-native plants pose a threat even if they are not attacking the environment?

Oh yes. They may just sit there and all of a sudden they will misbehave. Scientists want to know why. Why are they so efficient? Why are they invasive here but not aggressive in their native habitats?

Would you say that New England is in a state of invasive plant crisis?

Yes. The United States spends over $100 billion every year in the repair of damage to intensive farmland management. We don’t want this problem to grow, but the European plants are very aggressive. For example, the Purple Loosestrife is a very pretty plant, and it’s fun to have it grow in a garden. But it spreads at a rate of 285,000 acres a year and produces over 2 million seeds per plant.

Does Europe have as much of a problem with plants from the United States as the United States has with plants from Europe?

No. U.S. plants do not take off there the way they do here.

So, we are on the losing side of the invasive species attack. Would you suggest sending some of our native species over there in order to even the score?

No, because it’s not a competition.

But if it were a competition, we’d be losing.

Yes, Eurasia is definitely the winner here.

Okay.

And the strange thing is that European plants are not aggressive in their natural habitats, but somehow here they just go wild. It’s like a party. I mean, 285,000 acres a year. That’s no joke.

Certainly not. How do scientists hope to combat this problem?

We can use plant samples to reconstruct how these species came in. Every specimen is a statement of occurrence, but not without data attached. If you go back to source specimens without data, what are you going to do with that?

Not much, I assume. What sort of data do you need?

Location, where a plant was found, what soil the plant came from, what other species grew around the plant, etc. Now we can use a GPS to record the exact coordinate where a plant is found, but before everything was recorded in journals. With data we can reconstruct the entire habitat and at the same time reconstruct the movement of species.

Can non-scientists play a role in preventing the introduction of invasive species?

Yes, and that is the goal of this exhibit. We want to tell people not to buy something that isn’t native. They have the opportunity to make choices. The paintings of this exhibit are so pretty. They definitely have the ability to capture people’s attention. Oftentimes people will look at them and say, “Gosh, I have that in my backyard. I didn’t know it was invasive.”

While on the subject of people’s personal reactions to invasive species, if you could be any invasive plant species, which would you be, and why?

I certainly would want to be a Purple Loosestrife because I’m pretty and because I produce so many seeds per plant. I can clone myself very successfully and can spread by water, so I can travel quite a ways.

If you could be besieged by any invasive plant, which species would you be besieged by, and why?

Why do I want to be besieged by a plant? If I were a native plant, I wouldn’t want any of these beasts to grow near me. These plants are pretty aggressive, so as a native plant, I would be pretty scared.

What do you think native plants should fear the most?

I think people do much more harm than plants. We have dramatically changed our environment, especially in the last 50 years, and this process comes slowly and painfully for the other organisms that have to live with us. People do not realize that trees regenerate but herbs don’t. Are we careful enough? No, we’re not. I laugh because really we should be more careful. Who suffers ultimately but ourselves?

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Sophie Perl
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