Ministry of Controversy

Want to get into trouble? Bring up native plants!

By contributing Ranter Allan Armitage

I work with the ornamental plant industry. These are the people who produce petunias, astilbes, impatiens and mums. These people live and die by new plants, especially new cultivars. I am also a gardener and serious advocate for the consumer, especially the not-as-serious-as-we-are gardeners, like my daughters. The issue of native plants is often discussed in the trade, with retailers and producers wondering how they can be part of the “native plant movement.” Here is a column I wrote in a national trade journal (Greenhouse Grower) aimed at the industry. It’s a quick overview of what might lie in store. (Please realize that this is totally different than how I speak to native plant enthusiasts. Perhaps that discourse can wait for another rant.)

Just a few weeks ago, I suggested we all need to seriously consider the issue of native plants. I mentioned we should be telling people that many of the plants we already grow are American natives, and that at least a Native Plant heading should appear on availability lists. I said the same for landscapers: let your clients know you are using native plants in your design—the desire to use natives is no longer a fad.

Native_plant_book_2

The movements of ecological awareness, of gardening as a lifestyle—not an activity, and the need to make gardening more of a feel-good experience are washing over us. A subset of these feel-good experiences is the desire to include more native plants in American landscapes and gardens. Great performing plants and native plants are not at all exclusive.

Gaillardia_gallo_bicolor_kieft_mar_
Galliarda gallo bicolor, a Kieft introduction

So having said “Grow natives!” why would I suggest that you can get into trouble if you do? It comes down to peoples’ very different definitions of a native plant. There are often two big questions when a fight breaks out about native plants.

The first that always rears its head is “What do you mean by native?” Native to your county, your state, your region, or your country? Native when Columbus sailed the ocean blue or when Erik the Red discovered Greenland in 986? Believe it or not, for many people, this is passionate stuff, and falls into the realm of politics and religion. For me, when I talk about natives, I define them as those plants that were on the North American mainland before the Europeans arrived. That’s my story and I am sticking to it. As for you, find a definition you are comfortable with and do the same.

Echinacea_kims_knee_high_flws_nbg_j
Echinacea “Kim’s Knee-High,” a Niche Gardens introduction

The second question can be equally inflammatory. “Is a cultivar between two native species still a native?” If you believe what I just wrote, I suppose the answer is no. Certainly, it is no to those who work in woodland or coastline reclamation; it will also be no to those who want to plant native meadows or maintain purity of species. That is fine; there are many plants to choose from. However what about my daughters, my design students, people in my audiences, and my friends who want to use natives but need better garden performance than a species can provide? If we as an industry are ever going to get native plants out of the closet and into the mainstream, then we have take advantage of the new breeding and selection in foam flowers, cone flowers and tickseeds. The promotion of cultivars is the only way we can help fill the desire to include native plants.

As a compromise between these two lines of thought, I suggest we call native cultivars and hybrids “Nativars.” If we use this term, then purists may not get as upset with us for stealing their plants and diluting the meaning of “native.” We will also reduce confusion and in fact provide additional value to the native moniker. Using “Nativars” will in the long run enhance the native plant movement, regardless of how it is defined. They will also increase our ability to get good plants into the hands of those who want that feel-good reaction and not feel guilty in doing so.

For native plant purists, cultivars just sully up the game plan. For breeders of baptisias, monarda and phlox, purists are nothing but collectors. Don’t get into arguments, find your comfort level, use or don’t use nativars, but understand one thing—the gardening-as-lifestyle movement is here to stay.

Posted by on December 23, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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31 Responses to “Want to get into trouble? Bring up native plants!”

  1. Ross says:

    That’s a good balanced viewpoint…

    In South Africa, Indigenous (As its called here) Gardening has gained a lot of momentum, but I think it has finally reached a tipping point in peoples thinking.

    Exotics and cultivars used to be the preferred choice, but lately I’ve noticed people would rather plant indigenous than use exotics if they can help it. The difficulty has been in convincing people that indigenous can be as, or even more attractive than exotics.

  2. bev says:

    I think one needs to keep in mind the science behind using natives in the first place. After all, we don’t do it just so the place looks like 1776, or to make us feel virtuous. We do it (to the best of my understanding) so that pollinators and the rest of the ecosystem can thrive and therefore help perpetuate the survival of OUR species, which is not ensured by any means!
    Again, as I understand it, the science on “nativars” is so far inconclusive as to whether they can still perform their ecological function – but some scientists such as Doug Tallamy have hypothesized that as long as the plant and floral structure remains intact, so should the function. I think all of us old biology majors (and Doug) recognize that this is just a guess. But I would highly recommend his book, or listening to him speak, to truly understand why all the folderol about natives arises in the first place. I asked for it for Christmas and am salivating over it till I can open it! (:
    All that said, this old biology major’s opinion is that in a geological time frame, the ecosystem will adapt to non-natives and new pollinators will co-evolve with the new plants to reestablish the system, or evolve a new one.
    The only trouble with that is that it may leave the current occupants of the planet, ourselves included, as a species which dies out due to inability to adapt. So therein lies the great conundrum.

  3. commonweeder says:

    I am in favor of natives, but I am confused about what you are calling Nativars. Good name and helpful. My question is, will the nativars support the food net for birds and insects the way that natives do? One of my reasons for growing natives is to support the whole ecological system. HELP!

  4. Mark says:

    I’m a grower, gardener and a perennial hortiholic. I like to promote native plants too, because “in theory” they should be easier to grow in our gardens. Everyone is for easier gardening!

    To clarify one point however (I know you said not to get into arguments, but…), I would suggest a cultivar of a native species (e.g. E. purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’) should still be considered “native”. Just because we propagate it asexually, doesn’t make it “non-native”. The plants still have all their original native genetics!

    I would even argue that a hybrid of two native species, should also still be considered native. Again, on a genetic level, it’s still 100% native. I understand however, that the purists get sticky about the exact geography of native species.

    In any case, these details matter little — use “nativars”!

    FWIW, one of my favourites is Geranium maculatum ‘Elizabeth Ann’.

    Cheers.

  5. tai haku says:

    This is always an interesting area. For those putting the environmental baseline at european arrival I’d encourage reading the pleistocene rewilders thoughts on where it should be – for example – Paul S. Martin’s “Twilight of the Mammoths”

    My thoughts are that there are obviously levels of preferability and the further a nativar gets from its parents’ forms and their home range the less useful it gets to wildlife but then all gardens are wildlife gardens; some more than others and I can’t get too excited about levels of nativism; too often it seems like just another way for one person to suggest they are “better” than another because their garden is “more natural”….

  6. FranSorin says:

    Allan-
    Thanks for your post on this important subject. In recent years, I have added more and more natives to gardens that I design so that now 80-90% of the gardens are native. The clients love it and I feel great about helping to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

    I wrote an article about natives not too long ago. Check it out at:
    http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/index.php?s=native+plants&paged=3

    All the best- Fran

  7. I’ve had this vague notion floating in my head for awhile that native plants grow best in native soils — and there are precious few areas of truly native soil left in our country.

    Certainly our garden soils are far from the natural conditions where natives thrived. And chances are good that the ‘wild’ areas near our homes have at one time or another had their soil drastically changed by some combination of logging, grazing, farming or bulldozing.

    So if we’re going to grow and encourage natives, what kind of soil should we provide?

    And is part of the reason we want to grow them so that they can spread back into the wild? And is the reason that invasives have a leg up in the wild because the altered soil conditions there favor them over the native species that once thrived there?

    I wish someone who knew more about soils, native plants and invasives would tackle some of those questions.

  8. Susan Harris says:

    Ditto Craig’s request! And while you’re at it, take into account other changes from the native plant’s original habitat. Here in the East most landscapes are far sunnier now than they were when the Europeans arrived.

    Also Allan, what’s up with defining “native plant” as original to the whole continent? Does that serve any purpose at all – horticultural or wildlife-related – other than broadening the marketing success of the plants by confusing the consumer? It bothers me to see plants designated simply as “native” or “U.S. native”, which the US Dept of Ag does in their plant profiles. Like political boundaries mean anything. Or in the case of using all of N. America, like plants from Arizona and Mexico are going to survive or feed wildlife here in Maryland.

    I think “locally native” or at least “regionally native” should be the standard. I’ve noticed that “native-plant designers” in my area use the regional approach, which allows them to use some great plants from the Carolinas, like oakleaf hydrangea.

  9. eliz says:

    I don’t feel the need for hard and fast answers to any of these questions, which is good, because I don’t think there are any. I plan to just muddle along, add more natives (as I define them) to my roster, and in general encourage such wildlife as will tolerate my garden.

  10. John says:

    Since a lot of the people I talk to don’t understand the word ‘cultivar’ I tend to say – “enhanced version of our native _______.” With fellow gardeners (normal people) I will now use the term ‘nativar’ and hope it spreads.

  11. Lisa Albert says:

    Just as I was getting ready to post my reply, I discovered while googling for another reason that I was MOL going to post what I’d written here on January 9, 2008, http://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2008/01/nativeor-not-so.html.

    I don’t have a whole lot more to add other than that I’m glad to see the conversation continue. And I agree with you, Alan, small steps are good: if cultivars are how natives gain a foothold in more gardens, more power to them. The reasons to grow natives are as varied as the gardeners and the gardens they grace. Let’s stop thinking native plant gardening has to be one-size fits all. Personally, I think that hinders acceptance of native plants.

  12. SJ says:

    I try to use a 50 to 70 percent mix of natives (the actual straight species) in gardens that I install that are indigineous to Northern IL. I guess that would be termed ‘regionally native’ to our area. The balance are typically natives regional to other parts of the US and non-invasive ‘guests’ from other parts of the world.

    The ‘guests’ are included to extend the interest of the garden from Mid March through early June – typically a down time for many sun loving prairie plants. Likewise, for shade gardens the reverse is true, the natives are typically at their peak during the spring & late summer but need a color boost from the ‘guests’ during the hotter months.

    With a few exceptions (like ‘Husker’s Red’ Beardstongue & some of the monardas like ‘Marshall’s Delight’) I’m not really hip to using cultivars of natives. I find them to be weaker which sort of defeats the purpose of using natives in the first place – might as well use a more interesting non-native.

    I’m saying this from a maintainence point of view because that’s primarily what I do – maintain gardens while at the same time installing a few gardens a year where time allows.

    Some examples which come to mind. I’ve found both the Meadowbrite & Big Sky series of Coneflowers – both crosses to be a disaster here in our heavy soils. Surprising since Meadowbrite was developed at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. But then again the soil is sandier along the Lake (where CBG is located) and closer to E. paradoxa’s native soil type then what’s seen at a typical suburban home stripped of most of the topsoil. Some of the other cones like ‘Kim’s Kneehigh’ & ‘Ruby Star’ I’ve had okay success with as long as the soil is reasonably good. ‘Goldstrum’ is prone to botrytis and peters out after about 4 weeks but you get a full 6 to 8 weeks, disease free from the straight species of the orange coneflower which is really native more towards parts of southern IL. I could go on with lists of disappointing native cultivars. But to be fair, for every ten I’ll find a couple that do fine.

    It’s very hard to find the straight species, in many cases I have to start them from divisions or seed in the spring to sell – which is a pain. But at least they perform, sometimes with less showy foliage or flowers.

  13. Michele Owens says:

    I’m trying to figure out why this debate bores me so profoundly. I guess I feel there are bigger fish to fry. Suburban sprawl, the loss of native habitat to the endless acres of asphalt surrounding every Big Box store, our ridiculous carbon emissions, the general uglification of our landscape that is modern life–I guess I’ll be willing to discuss natives versus non-natives after those problems are solved. Until then, I only require two things of any plant hoping to be stuck into my small urban backyard: A, able to survive without supplemental water. And B, pretty.

  14. I don’t discriminate nor hold any bias against inter-plant marriages, cross breeding within the same genus, native or not, or open cross breeding.

    Diversity is a good thing , in both the environment and in humanity.

    That is something the Pope should also think about.

  15. Gloria says:

    I would like to address the soil and climate conditions.
    Many native plant species are generalest(grow anywhere it seems)while others have a more narrow range of damands to thrive (picky picky), just like the more commonly grown garden cultivars.Finding out where natives grew originaly helps guide our placement. There are many choices. Native species would have been moving along the bounderies of their best conditions, sometimes spreading out futher and then disappearing completely from the original spot because of moisture or sun differences(climate changes)
    Althougth topsoil has eroded and/or compacted the same deep minerals are in place for simple pre-settlement requirements. Microbial activity will be regenerated by the decomposing of the plants in time.
    Communitys of general plants pave the way for more the specific conditions of picky natives.
    We have watched this happed over the years in many restorations in the Chicago area. Natives thought long gone have reappeared after a known community of plants that could grow, produced the requirements of the more narrow needs plant. Community matters.

    Native plants are at this time producing the adaptations necessary to survive the current conditions. Hopefully by salvaging a broad range of species genes the survival rate will increase.
    As for range there are species of plants that grow ,with adaptations, all across the continent. Others are specific to an area. The more local the better for some plants, for others it does not matter so much.
    Many natives are not hard to grow
    and look beautiful in the right place. No harder to determine than any other type of plant for a garden.

  16. Gloria says:

    Boring, did you say boring?
    Please without the pollinators rapidly disappearing you will learn boring. When wind born pollens of grains become your choice of food. I thought you liked vegetable gardening. There are so many fruits and vegetables that grow so much more food when local pollinators are abundant.

  17. The joke in Northern California is if you want a native garden, you better learn to love the color brown. Because of our wet winter/dry summer climate, many natives put on a spectacular show in the spring, than go dormant (read – look dead) in the summer. You have to be a pretty hardcore native enthusiast or a kick-ass plant designer to go 100% native.

    Mixing about 50% natives with culturally compatible mediterranean plants seems to provide the right mix of self-satisfied environmental smugness and a pretty summer garden that my clients and I are going for.

  18. eliz says:

    Well, to bring up the Tallamy book again, I do think the whole native plant thing can go beyond our individual choices. It really is a critique of suburban monocultures. That is the first thing Tallamy brings up and the first (and third) thing you mention, Michele.

    There is a very important “big picture” aspect to the debate.

  19. Michele Owens says:

    Gloria–so true. I have native meadows in the country that I just leave alone, except for an annual mowing, and my vegetable garden buzzes with native bees.

    I’m just skeptical of the value of native plants in an urban or suburban yard. There’s not much wildlife to feed here in the city–unless you count the squirrels. I also think that the best efforts of many thousands of gardeners to keep an ecosystem alive in their backyards is nothing compared to the relentless force of suburbanization. So I’ll save my ire for people who think it’s okay to locate schools, stores, libraries, and doctors’ office miles outside of town–and keep on planting exotics, thanks.

  20. Gloria says:

    Michele, thankfully there are many that feel otherwise.
    I saw a coyote in front of my urban home. While this might unsettle some it means much to me. Over 200 coyotes have been tagged and followed for six years in Chicago and many believe the numbers might be between 2000 and 3000 living in the city in every single area. They eat rodents and bring down the numbers of canadian geese that had been a serious problem.
    Once I saw a long tailed shrew in our back garden, this might just be another rodent to you but is another sign that creatures can and have adapted to us.
    I will agreem mostly insects and birds benefit from urban plantings of native species.That is a good thing. The number of insects species increases each year as the garden gets established. Sitting in our garden on a summer night sounds almost as loud as on a camping trip.
    Much work is showing that gardens provide a corridor for these creatures even when they are not mating reproducing there.But we are finding plenty of evidence ofinsects reproducing in the many gardens we explore especially those with at least some native species.
    While honey bees are rare in my garden bumble bees and other natives are becoming abundant. This is not just an idea it is being documented here and in Europe.
    Work in The Brazilian Cerrado is studing the changes from native savannah to agriculture as it happens. We will learn much from the way they use current understandingings of soil biology and insect populations to manage this change over.
    Grow your vegetables and exotic pretties if you must but do not disdain the efforts to understand underway in many universities and goverment agencies responsible for the future.
    Gloria

  21. “Debate” is a waste of time, as if there could be a right and wrong wide to this. I think the discussion is important, moreso in the “industry” than when preaching to the converted of native plant geeks such as myself.

    The purpose of a garden, and its plants, comes first. From my own observations, native pollinators – and they are numerous and varied – are most attracted to the native plants in my garden. The same goes for other invertebrates. I’ve seen lowly white Asters mature their seeds just when the warblers migrate through the area. If I want to observe or invite native animal life, I’m better off with native plants.

    The most precious native plants in my garden are local ecotypes. They’re not available in general commerce. They have been propagated from sources in and around New York City by the Staten Island Greenbelt. These have the best chance of being in synch with the phenologies that bring life, not just lifestyle, into my garden.

  22. firefly says:

    I would like to second what Gloria said. I live in a city of 70,000+ not too far away from an interstate highway, an airport, a railroad, and a working city waterfront (fishing boats and oil tankers). That is what I think of as urban. In my yard, I have seen foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, two species of songbird hawks, at least a dozen species of songbirds, butterflies, five types of native bees, and more of other types of insects than I know how to identify.

    I have a 50×100 foot lot and the house takes up at least a third of that.

    A lot can be done with relatively little effort, and, as Gloria mentioned, small gardens can provide a surprising amount to wildlife.

    One of the books I read on the subject of natives versus invasives reviewed a number of studies and found that plants and organisms from other continents are much more likely to become invasive than same-continent species.

    The same book (“Alien Species and Evolution” by George Cox) points out that it is really too late to ever go back to a “native” landscape (even when invasives are eradicated, environments and interactions are forever changed), but makes the case that giving natives a fighting chance by providing habitat may allow them to survive and adapt to new ecologies.

    That’s a good enough reason for me to keep integrating natives into the garden.

  23. Phillip M says:

    Glad to see this discussion. I lead native plant walks for the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. The more time I spend going out and learning plants and seeing where and how they grow the more I find the non-natives just plain boring.

  24. Barbara says:

    People looked at me cross-eyed when I handed out “since the last glacier” plant lists in the mid-90′s. They still do.

    What has peeved me so is the fact that I must order and have them UPS’d from Kentucky or Tennessee to 50 miles north up the Hudson for the best quality & price.

    So – that’s it. I have started Tarn Farm LLC and am now a nursery! Greenhouse arriving mid-March! Am I nuts? Yup! But happy!

  25. Chris Upton says:

    The question that I don’t know the answer to is,”do we have any individual responsibility to preserve germplasm diversity?” One of/the major? issue with cultivars is that they are clones and not only that, usually they are chosen for the fact that they differn to some degree from the mianstream population of a species. Large planting of cultivars adjacent to native populations can swamp gene pools in the same way that escaped “farm salmon” do. But is that they way of the world? Is it inevitable? Do we care? And if we care what steps do we take?

    I know I don’t know but it is worth thinking about.

  26. luise h. says:

    I feel very fortunate that Nurseries in my Area are offering a great variety of Plants,including Natives,Nativars and “imported” Plants.I use a happy Mix of all,always promote the use of Natives and in general try to educate clients about the benefits of Natives.Most people are not aware of the importance of indiginous Plants in the Landscape,let’s educate them.

  27. Tibs says:

    “John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society.” How appropriate is that coincidence of names? He was probably one of the first anti-urbaniization/ naturalistis literary characters, (John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, ana Tarzan).

  28. greg draiss says:

    Good point..at what point do you cross native and invasive. Just beacause a plant is not native does not mean it is not suited for our gardens

    Who are we to once again take man out of the picture and say native can only be introduced by wind rain or other animal?
    I think a more decisive deabte should take place on invasives.
    They are far more dangerous than “introduced” plants that naturalize.

    The (how did I gat here anyway) TROLL

  29. Pam/Digging says:

    I don’t understand why people get bent out of whack over the definition of native either. Thanks for a reasonable definition and a laid-back but encouraging attitude.

    Here in Austin, I find that clients want to use central Texas natives in their gardens. They ask for them, in fact, as a means to conserving water and creating a regionally appropriate look. I definitely include cultivars in the mix.

    Luckily, finding native plants is easy in Austin thanks to several independent nurseries that specialize in them and even propagate their own.

  30. jodi says:

    A thought provoking post and comments, as always. I tend to shy from any sort of absolutism, and our garden (in rural Nova Scotia) is a mixture of natives, naturalized, hybrids and nativars. We avoid species that tend to be thuggish, plant with birds and pollinators in mind, and grow as organically as possible. We’re also lucky, like Pam, to have several local nurseries that grow many native varieties for sale as part of their businesses, and I see more people embracing more natives. I think more nativars, selected for longevity of colour or other desirable features, will also go a long way in getting more people onboard the native-gardening boat. As with any plant, you need to match growing conditions to plant; Canada holly will not thrive in dry, sandy soil, nor delicate ferns in a hot sunny location.

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