Increase Diversity to Protect Urban Plants from Killer Pests


Target: Marty Walsh, Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts

Goal: Call on city officials to increase plant diversity in order to protect urban landscapes from increasingly destructive pests

The lack of plant variety across major cities in the United States is creating an ideal breeding ground for cankerworms, plant-eating caterpillars which are a driving cause of leaf loss and eventually death for many species of plants. The fall cankerworm, native to the Eastern United States, eats new leaves as it hatches in early spring causing premature foliage death and unsightly damage to plants. Urban farmers and gardeners can increase plant diversity, as well as the density of ornamental shrubs, to more closely mimic a natural environment and thus decrease cankerworm damage.

Research from North Carolina State University (NCSU) has shown that the fall cankerworm does more damage to native plants in “simple urban environments.” During the study Dr. Steve Frank, an assistant professor of entomology at NCSU, found that the cankerworms were less likely to destroy native plants when surrounded by a more richly diverse plant environment. Furthermore, the study revealed that the worms stayed away from nonnative species of plants almost completely.

Recognizing the importance of a diversity of foliage species is a necessary step in creating a more sustainable urban landscape. Although the goal of urban farming is often to produce aesthetically pleasing surroundings, current models invite extensive, unsightly damage by cankerworms and other pests. In Eastern cities such as Boston, where cankerworm and winter moth infestations are known to devastate landscaping plants, greater diversity would both help sustain urban plant life and contribute to the city’s upkeep.

If the lack of urban plant diversity is not addressed the damage caused by fall cankerworms could become irreversible, allowing budding plants to survive only a few days before being destroyed. Support healthier, more beautiful urban landscapes and demand that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh work with urban farming organizations to implement new plant diversification strategies across his city.


Dear Mayor Walsh,

The urban landscape is suffering each day that the diversity of plant foliage in Boston remains the same. A new study conducted by North Carolina State University reveals that the fall cankerworm is a contributing cause of defoliation in cities across the United States. These caterpillars feed on new plants when they first bud, giving plants little chance to bloom. This is detrimental to the urban landscape and could even leave cities barren of foliage if efforts are not made to limit the insects’ breeding conditions.

The NCSU study concludes that diversifying plant life in cities makes it less likely that the cankerworms will invade. Fall cankerworms were less likely to destroy native plants if nonnative plants were planted in the same area creating a more dense, complex plant habitat that mimicked a more natural environment.

The city of Boston must implement new planting strategies if it wants to retain its reputation for being one of the cleanest and most beautiful cities in America. I urge you to work with urban farmers to increase plant diversity, thus limiting the destructive potential of cankerworm infestations.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: L. Shyamal via Wikimedia Commons

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