In the region of upstate New York where I live, Lyme disease- an infection of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that’s spread primarily by deer ticks- has become an epidemic. All the odd controversies aside, there are physical realities about this situation that are not being acknowledged. Primarily the reality that we are a part of the problem. Ellen Sousa recently wrote that, “We are all beginning to pay the price for the ecologically short-sighted landscaping conventions of the past century…” Concerning Japanese Barberry and lyme ticks, truer words have rarely been spoken.

20131124-184909.jpg Landscapers in the region I live in use Japanese Barberry as the backbone of most of their bland, cookiecutter landscaping sites. Driving through a new development of 200+ homes in southern Saratoga County recently, I noted that 95% of the new construction used Japanese Barberry as the mainstay of the plant material. There’s the underlying problem of zero biodiversity or habitat reconstruction with such a limited palett, but arguably a more pressing reality is that all this Japanese Barberry accelerates a bad public health crisis. Japanese Barberry, an invasive non-native species, spreads rapidly and widely in the woods surrounding the properties they’ve been landscaped into, and many studies indicate that reproduction of the ticks that carry Lyme disease is facilitated by several physical conditions the shrubs produce.

20131129-163734.jpgA site we replaced Japanese Barberry with Clethra alnifolia- a shrub indigenous to the Saratoga County region, which attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.

Several colleges in Connecticut studied the link between the presence of Japanese Barberry in a given wooded area and the resulting increase in numbers of ticks that live there. This happens after birds spread the Barberry seeds into the woods, with a virile 90% germination rate of the seeds. The ticks hide safely from deer browsing in the Barberry thickets, because the deer don’t eat the Barberry- the deer prefer native shrubbery that doesn’t have all those thorns. The Japanese Barberry manages to stay very humid- 80% more humid than native shrubbery, which allows ticks to reproduce in exponential numbers, creating “tick nurseries” all over the woods. Completing the picture, the white footed mouse also enjoys the humid climate under the Barberry thickets, and when the mice pass through, the tick larvae pile onto them, using the mice as a vehicle to move around, usually closer to our living spaces.

20131129-172206.jpgNew York native shrub, Elderberry in full bloom in June.

There is a solution to cookiecutter landscape designs, that is learning about and using the plantlife native to our region. It takes creativity but it’s so worth the extra effort when there are suddenly more birds and butterflies on the property. Native plants take extra effort to locate; most big box garden centers don’t carry them because they can’t be manipulated into blooming by chemical fertilization like many non-natives can. Luckily there’s a new website for locating native plant nurseries by region. So, stop with the Lyme tick nurseries, there are too many amazing native plant species to use Barberry anyway.