Economic alien plants more likely to go wild

June 24, 2020

Humans have cultivated plants outside their native ranges for thousands of years. But as the world became increasingly interconnected over the past five hundred years, the scale of cultivation of non-native plants for economic value - for example as food, ornamentation or for medicinal purposes - has intensified. For the first time, a team of researchers led by University of Konstanz ecologist Mark van Kleunen has carried out scientific analyses to assess how economic use of non-native plants relates to their naturalization success (i.e. their establishment in the wild) around the world.

Cultivation a major driver of the introduction of alien plants

The international team of biologists from the University of Konstanz, Taizhou University and Fudan University (both in China), the University of Vienna, the Czech Academy of Sciences, Durham University and Georg August University of Göttingen analysed a global dataset on 11,685 economic plant species (World Economic Plants database) in combination with a global dataset on 12,013 naturalized plant species (Global Naturalized Alien Flora database).

The results, which were published in Nature Communications this week, suggest that cultivation for economic use is the major pathway for the introduction of naturalized alien plants in regions across the globe.

Economic plants are more likely to naturalize

"As an ecologist, I'm mainly interested in what determines the success of a plant species, particularly alien plant species", says Mark van Kleunen, lead author on the study. "Many contemporary studies look into their spread, trying to understand why these aliens are able to establish themselves in areas well beyond their native ranges. What these studies tend not to take into account is how and why they were introduced in the first place".

The results of the study confirm that there is a direct link between cultivation for economic purposes and naturalization: Plants with an economic use were 18 times more likely to naturalize than species without any known economic use, and plants with multiple economic uses were the most likely to naturalize. More than 50 percent of the plant species used as ornamental garden plants or for the production of animal food, which are among the most widely cultivated plants, have become naturalized somewhere in the world.

Plants from Northern Hemisphere among the most successful

Previous studies have shown that Northern Hemisphere continents are the most prolific when it comes to donating naturalized species, especially Europe. "Our research suggests that this is because more plants from the Northern Hemisphere have been cultivated for economic use elsewhere, and not because they are in some way superior or have an innate ability to naturalize outside their native environments", says Dr Trevor Fristoe, another University of Konstanz author on the study. Economic plants of Asian origin, however, were shown to have the greatest naturalization success.

Cultivation bias drives phylogenetic patterns in naturalization

The study further shows that phylogenetic patterns in the naturalized flora are partly due to which plants we cultivate. Naturalized species have been shown to be far more frequent in some families of the world's global seed plant flora than in others. While these patterns have been attributed to shared traits among closely related species that promote naturalization success, the new insights generated by van Kleunen et al. raise the possibility that these patterns are caused by a phylogenetic bias in the species selected and cultivated for their economic value.

Note to editors:

You can download a photo here:

Caption: Oxalis pes-caprae or Bermuda buttercup is native to South Africa, and has been introduced elsewhere as bee plant (for honey production) and for ornamental purposes. It is now widely naturalized elsewhere, like here on Crete (Greece).

Image: Mark van Kleunen


University of Konstanz
Communications and Marketing
Phone: +49 7531 88-3603

University of Konstanz

Related Plant Species Articles from Brightsurf:

German researchers compile world's largest inventory of known plant species
Researchers at Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) have compiled the world's most comprehensive list of known plant species.

Evolution in action: New Plant species in the Swiss Alps
A new plant species named Cardamine insueta appeared in the region of Urnerboden in the Swiss alps, after the land has changed from forest to grassland over the last 150 years.

Invasional meltdown in multi-species plant communities
New research led by University of Konstanz ecologists reveals invasional meltdown in multi-species plant communities and identifies the soil microbiome as a major driver of invasion success.

Study shows Latin America twice as rich in plant species as tropical Africa
Latin America is more than twice as rich in plant species as tropical Africa and is home to a third of the world's biodiversity, a new paper published today in Science Advances confirms.

Plant size and habitat traits influence cycad susceptibility to invasive species
A long-term study on cycads in Guam has revealed how rapidly invasive species devastated the native Cycas micronesica species and the key factors that have influenced the plant's mortality.

About 94 per cent of wild bee and native plant species networks lost, York study finds
Climate change and an increase in disturbed bee habitats from expanding agriculture and development in northeastern North America over the last 30 years are likely responsible for a 94 per cent loss of plant-pollinator networks, York University researchers found.

Australian fossil reveals new plant species
Fresh examination of an Australian fossil -- believed to be among the earliest plants on Earth -- has revealed evidence of a new plant species that existed in Australia more than 359 Million years ago.

Study: One-third of plant and animal species could be gone in 50 years
University of Arizona researchers studied recent extinctions from climate change to estimate the loss of plant and animal species by 2070.

Scientists challenge notion of binary sexuality with naming of new plant species
A collaborative team of scientists from the US and Australia has named a new plant species from the remote Outback.

Plant lineage points to different evolutionary playbook for temperate species
An ancient, cosmopolitan lineage of plants is shaking up scientists' understanding of how quickly species evolve in temperate ecosystems and why.

Read More: Plant Species News and Plant Species Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to