The invasive species war

Do we protect native plants because they’re better for the earth, or because we hate strangers? A cherished principle of environmentalism comes under attack

(Left: iStock photo; Right: Roel Smart/iStock photo)

Leon Neyfakh

EARLIER THIS MONTH, a troop of volunteers in Newton piled into canoes and went to war in the name of the Charles River. They wore gloves to protect themselves from their enemy: a thorny aquatic plant called the European water chestnut, believed to have invaded the Charles a century ago after escaping from the Harvard botanical garden. The plant spread swiftly, growing so thick in some areas that it overwhelmed the waterway entirely. For the past four years, the Charles River Watershed Association has led the effort to get rid of the pest, recruiting concerned citizens to pull the unwanted plants out by their roots and collect them in plastic laundry baskets.

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