Turning Invasive Exotic Plants into Art

Multiflora rose stems being boiled.   By Patterson Clark, used with permission.

Multiflora rose stems being boiled.
By Patterson Clark, used with permission.

Invasive exotic plants were taking over Patterson Clark’s neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC.  Initially he saw the need to wage a war against them.  Then he found inspiration in their beauty and opportunity in their removal.

He first noticed the weeds as he walked along a tributary of Rock Creek Park.  They were pulling and dragging along the trunks of the mature native trees, sometimes even killing their native host tree as they grew.

When the giant tulip trees would fall, gaps would open in the canopy, exposing the forest floor below to increased quantities of light.  Hickory, holly, and ash trees would sprout and begin reaching toward the sky — only to be smothered by mile-a-minute, and Irish ivy.  Much of the area was completely engulfed in vines.

Elsewhere, around chain link fences, he noticed alien trees and vines which quickly entwined themselves into the fence poles and began producing seeds by the thousands.

At first, Clark was compelled to begin battle, to wage a war against the weeds.  He took training classes given by the National Park Service and learned how to remove the aggressive plants safely so that the mature trees and tiny seedlings would benefit.  There were methods of cutting which could be employed to free the trunks from their ivy kidnappers, for example.  And unwanted tree species could be cut down before they matured.

But something seemed amiss to Clark in the process.  The aliens were a problem that threatened the balance of the forest, to be sure.  But it was a dispiriting way to approach a landscape, especially for an artist.

“I came to realize that my antagonistic relationship with these plants had to change ” he told a crowd a assembled at Brookside Gardens  last night, where he was giving a talk to the Silver Spring Garden Club .

After years of cutting, and discarding the stems, leaves and vines, he began to wonder instead how he could use them.   His dislike of waste was matched by his love of making new, artisanal creations.

And so a harvest began.  Not the kind a farmer might try, nor that of a shaman in the rainforest.  It was the harvest of an artist.

For Clark, who works as a visual artist and columnist at the Washington Post, the paradigm shift provided inspiration and a strict aesthetic.  He began seeking opportunities for reuse, reading the history and chemical composition of each species he removed.  What they did to the forest might seem ugly, but he discovered that the plants themselves were often full of lovely properties.

And so his rules became clear and simple:  he would use as much of each plant as he could, seeking to avoid waste in order to make art or food.

Some of the plants were, indeed, edible.  The leaves of garlic mustard, which can create a monocrop-like carpet on the urban forest floor, can be delicious if fried up in oil like kale.  They offer a tremendously nutritious  complement to a main course.  One simply has to be careful to avoid harvesting along the sidewalks where people walk their dogs, he said.   And by harvesting, one allows other plants, including natives, to grow in the area instead.

Other invasives hold a different kind of abundance.  The stems of multiflora rose – that thorny, woody  vine which can occupy vast acres with its brambles — can be cut and boiled in water to form a gooey,  gelatinous, red ink.

White mulberry bark can be stewed and then made into paper, or used fresh to make strong cordage.

The lumber from Norway Maple trees can become blocks for carving out wood cuts, which can then be inked and used for hand printing.

Much of what Clark does  now is based on his own experimentation with each plant.  But some of the result, he says, comes from learning how the different species were used in their countries of origin.

“I feel that my work is a way of remembering,” he said.  If a species was used traditionally in Asia for paper, he begins to use it that way now.  If a species was used for making rope, he gets out his knife and starts working on braids.  When nothing is known, he takes out his cooking pots and builds a fire in his outdoor wood stove and begins to play and experiment.

There are hours and hours of work involved.  Some of it sounds tedious.  Some of it sounds like alchemy.  Watching the slides that went across the screen felt a bit like attending a lecture given by a Zen master who studied with the witches from Macbeth.  There were a lot of photos of boiling cauldrons and several descriptions of caustic chemical bi-products that should be avoided.

But even in the midst of discussing how some experiments had removed layers of skin from his fingers*, he seemed delighted, like a kid who’s just figured out that he actually has the secret ingredients needed for wizardry growing in his own backyard.

To be clear, Clark does not advocate the planting of these species.  He clearly understands their destructive potential in the local ecosystem.  And he still believes in and works toward their elimination from the forest.

But what he hopes is that perhaps one day his type of art will provide an “economic engine which could fund their removal.”  These plants aren’t going away from our environment, he points out, and finding a way to use them might negate their destructive powers.

When I asked him about the possibility that these kinds of creative  endeavors might encourage further planting of these aggressive species, he told me there are ways around such problems, if people are willing.  Perhaps, he told us, a certification program could be created.  Plants removed in one park could be made into postcards, art prints, inks or other materials which would then be certified as being from an invasive exotic weed removal.  Proceeds generated from their sale could benefit that park, and its management.

“The idea is to make an economic engine which would could fund the removal of the plants,” he told us.

“This is my way of dealing with it and not generating sadness.”

*** *** ***

To see some of Patterson Clark’s beautiful, hand-made artisanal prints, visit his website:

And be sure to also check out his excellent column, the Urban Jungle.  It appears on an occasional basis in the Thursday science section of the Washington Post, and can be found year round in that newspaper’s archives at:

For more about invasive exotic plants, check out this website:

*UPDATE: Patterson Clark wrote me to say that my description of him losing several layers of skin is, perhaps, an exaggeration.  “The mild alkali used to cook plant fibers turns the surface of the outer layer of skin into soap, which can make it feel slippery. Not at all like the caustic burn from drain lye,” he explains.

(Hmmm, maybe so, Patterson. But that still sounds like a task I won’t be taking on myself anytime soon… glad you enjoy the chemistry.  The results are really incredible!)



One Thought on “Turning Invasive Exotic Plants into Art

  1. I think the alkali making one’s fingers feel soapy is due to the chemical turning the oils (not skin) on your fingertips to soap–much like what Laura Ingalls Wilder did in the “Little House in the Big Woods”, where she described making soap out of ash (alkali) and animal fat…

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