19 April, 2024
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‘Detrimental effect’: Invasive plants are a booming business online


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Researchers have expressed alarm at the uncovering of thousands of online advertisements selling invasive plants that pose a risk to Australia’s wildlife.

Jacob Maher, a PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Adelaide, was the lead author of a study which found these potentially damaging products were freely available for Australians to purchase across the country.

He explained to The New Daily that it was biosecurity officers and people working in environment departments that first raised concerns about the impact of invasive flora and fauna available on the online market.

Prickly pear, other invasive cacti, English ivy, ornamental pond plants and aquatic weeds (like water hyacinth) were among the most common offenders being sold.

Some were sold with generic names like “lily” or simply “cactus”.

Maher said until his research the problem had not been systematically investigated.

“So we didn’t know exactly to what extent it was happening and what species were being traded and sort of didn’t have a good handle on the overall risk of that trade,” he said.

Why are invasive plants so bad?

Invasive plants are a risk around Australia.

In some cases, invasive plants can compete with native plants, making it hard for them to grow, which can have an impact on an entire ecosystem.

Invasive plants can be a nuisance and damage agricultural lands, increase the severity of fires and even block waterways.

Maher explained invasive plants can also have a detrimental impact on First Nations people.

“Some of these plants actually have a really detrimental effect on social and cultural values for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

“Because some of these plants actually will impact the availability or access to traditional food and medicine plants, or traditional animals for cultural use.”

Some can also have “nasty effects on human health”, like triggering asthma, hayfever, or can even lead to contact dermatitis, Maher said.

Controlling pest plants is also very costly. It’s estimated Australia has spent $200 billion in doing just that since 1960.

The researchers found several invasive plants were found for sale online.

Common invasive plants

Maher explained that, in most cases, people were buying invasive plants online unintentionally. He said people buy plants, invasive or not, for a variety of reasons, not just for aesthetics.

Through his research over 150 plants that have been declared invasive were found online, on public marketplaces, and were available for people to purchase.

The most common pest seen online was the prickly pear.

Not all cacti is deemed invasive in Australia, but the prickly pear is declared invasive in “most, if not all” parts of Australia, Maher said.

Maher said the likely reason why cacti and succulents are so popular is because they are generally easy to look after and are easy to propagate.

“You can grow another plant from a cutting of these cacti, so that might have resulted in why we saw so many online,” Maher said.

“People might be propagating them and able to sell more of them because it’s so easy to kind of have an abundance or an access.”

Anecdotally, the researchers found that people were perhaps selling invasive plants as a means of disposal.

What needs to be done

Already, Australia has some pretty strict biosecurity laws. However, it’s hard to regulate just about anything online, especially when the trading is happening within the country.

Maher said awareness is crucial and that it’s worth taking some time to figure out whether a plant is invasive or declared so in a certain Australian jurisdiction.

“Generally people, particularly like gardeners, are really great at helping each other out and like letting each other know whether or not something is is invasive, so we need to be encouraging that behaviour,” Maher said.

Additionally, he said a lot of good can be done by encouraging mindful purchases and, better still, favouring native flora.

Declared plants differ from state to state, so it is worth checking Weeds Australia to make sure.

Maher says shopping for plants within your jurisdiction is generally a good idea, as most reputable online stores and nurseries will know what is allowed and what isn’t.

“If people want to shop interstate, they just need to do a little bit of checking to make sure that [the sellers] have some compliance or that they have some awareness about where things shouldn’t be sent,” he added.

From a regulatory standpoint, Maher thinks Australia needs to make sure biosecurity acts cover e-commerce and online trading platforms.

Additionally, such platforms should also be self-regulating, if they want to allow people to sell plants or animals.

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