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Thomas Rainer’s 5 Myths about Native Plants

Part 2 of my summary of Thomas Rainer’s talk about designing with native plants at the Lahr Native Plant Symposium.  Part 1, covering design, is here.

Thomas’s myths about native plants:

1. That native plants are drought-tolerant, requiring less supplemental watering, a notion Thomas calls total ‘hogwash”.  Au contraire.  In our region (the Mid-Atlantic), the most poplar native plants are actually from the wetter habitats, so they’re decidedly NOT drought-tolerant, for good reason.  (An example of this would be planting Itea along highways.  Native-plant advocate Rick Darke calls this type of placement “native plant abuse”).

2. That natives are weedy or messy.  Well, they don’t have to be.  Read that design link above, or just notice how gorgeous Prairie Dropseed and Baptisia look at Chanticleer Garden (below).

3. They natives MUST be naturalistically arranged.  The ultra-modern and anything-but-naturalistic array of horsetail in Andrea Cochran’s design pictured here is an example to ponder.

4. That they shouldn’t be planted in large masses.  But why not?  There’s great drama in monocultures, and masses DO happen in nature.  (Thomas showed us some photos taken in the wild as proof.)

5. That native plants are not as vigorous as exotics, that they’re wimpy – a myth that exists concurrently with its opposite, number 1. And this one is sadly true IF the natives are planted in the wrong spots, when the soil has been changed by development, for example.  On the East Coast poor performance frequently results when woodland ephemerals are chosen for sunny, developed sites, where plants like Hibiscus and switchgrass should be used.

Proof that native plants perform well when they’re sited correctly are found in the wild, where native plants are seen thriving in even such brutal sites as granite rock out-croppings.  And at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center they’re finding that native grasses are outperforming succulents on green roofs.

That’s all from Thomas.  Now I can’t resist offering a fresh example of the misinformation about native plants that pervades the media today, even from people perceived as experts.  This newspaper article by a writer for a botanical garden contains the following quote with no qualifiers.  It perfectly illustrates the origins of Myth No. 1.

Native plants require less work, less money, less chemicals and less water to maintain because they have adapted to the region’s soil and climate.

Posted by on April 10, 2012 at 6:30 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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16 Responses to “Thomas Rainer’s 5 Myths about Native Plants”

  1. Whoa whoa whoa. Let’s back up the train with #1 and your last quote. First, my native plants DO use much less water, specifically less water than my lawn. I water my garden 1-2 times per year. But I’ve also researched the plants for right placement, and planted densely. As for that last point, I don’t use chemicals for a myriad of reasons, the largest being I don’t have to. My garden seriously does take care of itself minus the spring cut down (masses of beneficial bugs and critters). And a planting of prairie plants does cost much less to maintain than lawn. I just saw an EPA video that says over 20 years, an acre of lawn costs $20,000 to maintains, whereas planted with prairie it’s $3,000. Did nature pour chemicals on prairies when the rocky mountain locust came every decade or so?

  2. One of the biggest myths to get around is the one you touch on in #5. Our evolved habitat, especially in cities, has changed growing conditions so severely that they’re no longer hospitable to what once might have thrived in the same geographic area.

    We wrote an article on some of the other murky issues relating to natives last year:

    http://torontogardens.blogspot.ca/2011/01/native-plants-prepare-to-do-some.html

  3. Hi Ben,

    I absolutely agree that native plants can require less water than some exotic plants. Particularly the prarie species you love. However, the blanket statement that native plants universally require less water and maintenance than exotic plants is, in my opinion, indefensible. That statement has done serious damage to the native plant movement here on the east coast where so many of the natives in cultivation are from mesic sites. People are planting water-loving natives and never watering them and then wondering why they die, particularly when their Korean Azalea never needs water. We have to send the right message about natives. Your point about placing natives in the right place IS the right message, not that they are inherently more drought tolerant than exotics. That’s just not true.

  4. Astra says:

    Yes, the key is proper placement and understanding micro-climates. Since “Colorado natives” span everything from high plains to alpine tundra, a simplistic assertion that natives will not need extra water in the average Front Range yard will not do.

  5. anne says:

    Would it be true to say that the “native plants use less water” myth grew out of the water conservation movement on the west coast (particularly in California), after several bad droughts forced people to re-think their landscaping choices? I remember that time period in the 70′s–when I first became aware of the term “xeriscape”.

  6. I’ve been fighting the “native plant superiority” myth for years – it just doesn’t go away. Feel free to download the column I wrote over 10 years ago. http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~Linda%20Chalker-Scott/Horticultural%20Myths_files/Myths/Native%20plants.pdf

  7. Agree, Thomas. Maybe this is a moral / ethical issue? Maybe the core argument we are really having beneath this discussion is that gardening is in some ways feeling under attack? Gardeners surely see themselves as helping nature, so when native plants enter the discussion those who use few to none feel defensive. Maybe? Thus we have this debate about myths? If we bring in information on native substitutes for traditional non native plants, and plug ecological benefits, is that being offensive? (Regardless of drought tolerance or chemical use issues.) Something about this recurring conversation has always bugged me and I can’t put my green thumb on it.

  8. I think there is more involved in the native plant debate than just plants: philosophy, politics, ethics, to name just a few. But that is true of all gardening I guess.
    I loved this post. Anything with ’5′ somethings always catches my attention.
    I am not 100% native in my garden, and now I know why. I can explain it better, first to myself and then others.
    thanks so much

  9. Ellen W. says:

    Regarding #5- it seems that sometimes the detailed information available for cultivated and exotic plants just isn’t available for natives.

    You can get variety-specific water and shade information for different kinds of geraniums but sometimes it seems that all you get for native plants (other than to where it is native) is if butterflies or bees like it and what it was used for by the local population back in the day, neither of which helps me put it in my yard. Is it more important that it get sun during the winter or be protected in summer? How does it feel about slopes? Are there other plants it won’t play nicely with?

    And don’t get me started on availability. I bought two very expensive native plants for my yard last year and they were little more than twigs with a couple thready roots. They were not ready to leave the greenhouse. I’m not giving up, I like the way many of the plants native to my area (Northern California) look, but my all-native garden plan has gone in the compost bin.

  10. Frank Hyman says:

    Many thanks to Susan and Thomas for providing a reality check on natives. As a horticulturist and garden designer, I use them as well as exotics. And from my point of view everything Thomas says is on target. –thanks, thanks, thanks, Frank

  11. Katie says:

    Ellen,

    For California natives, have you checked out either Yerba Buena or Las Pilitas? Both have water and shade information for their plants. Las Pilitas will even ship theirs.

  12. Here’s an interesting read on the issue from some colleagues/friends of mine in Urban Habitats:

    Moving Beyond the Natives/Exotics Debate
    http://www.urbanhabitats.org/v07n01/nativesdebate_full.html

  13. “Native plants are not as vigorous as exotics.”

    Hogwash!!! Try planting a garden in nature without killing everything in sight first. Most people have no clue in their stripped clean suburban settings. Many native plants are invasive thugs. I can look out my window and list plenty; elderberry, blackberry, Clematis virginiana, New England Aster, Impatiens pallida and Mayapple to start.

    Mass planting is nature’s default mode of doing things in most cases. When any particular micro climate/environment suits a particular plant species there are always a lot of them. Nature just tends to intermingle mass plantings so there are multiple species mixed in the mass. There are drifts of Hydrangea arborescens and Rubus odoratus with all kinds of wild things lapping at their feet. They are not invasive thugs only because I like them and want to keep them. There isn’t one trillium in the forest, there are thousands.

    Nature simply has more space to utilize than the typical homeowners garden. There is room for 30 of these and 500 of those and an extensive plant species list at the same time.

    My challenge is exactly the opposite of most gardeners. How do I make a cultivated garden fit into nature and not look out of place instead of how do I have a native plant garden and make it fit in to the neighborhood so my MIL will think it is a garden.

  14. Tami says:

    Excellent post. Keep spreading this important information.

    Most people do not realize how much microclimates and soils are changed by urbanization. The plants which once lived on that site may never be able to live there again.

  15. skr says:

    The monoculture critique always bothers me a bit. A massing of 1000 sqft or even 10,000 sqft is not a monoculture. A planting of 100 acres is a monoculture. Now if everyone plants their 5000 sqft with the exact same turf, that can become a monoculture but even then there s typically far more diversity than opponents are really to admit.

  16. 1. ‘That native plants are drought-tolerant’

    Your assessment was absolutely correct here. Many of the natives that people love have a lush appearance and the reasons most likely they are maybe require a bit more water than those southwestern natives which probably wouldn’t do so well back east anyway, good points again.
    ===

    2. ‘That natives are weedy or messy.’

    All plants require a measure of care and pruning, that’s why it’s called a front and backyard created for esthetic appeal. Though I will admit that some of the western woody shrubs, depending on the variety do need a manicure now and then or they’ll be rangy like they are in the wild.
    ===

    3. ‘They natives MUST be naturalistically arranged.’

    Not true. Out in nature things look haphazzard or formal. You need an element of formal in your yard anyway. That’s why it’s called a garden and landscape around your house. It requires a measure of order. However I do like companion planting if that’s possible. That’s where I plant the same plants which grow together in nature for which the mycorrhizal grid of earth’s Internet benefits the ecosystems out in the wild. They’ll work that way for you as well in your garden if you replicate it properly.
    ===

    4. ‘That they shouldn’t be planted in large masses’

    Then what would be the point of having them in a garden where you want variety ? Some things in nature are in masses, but most healthy native plants things grow together with different neighbours in a nice biodiverse situation. Good points again and I love that meadow looking lawn. Wish more folks would use bunch grasses.
    ===

    5. ‘That native plants are not as vigorous as exotics’

    Any plant on Earth has both the potential to be vigorous or wimpy depending on the location and knowledge/experience of the one growing them. Even the traditional Nursery selections. Every plant from the Nursery is native to somewhere at one time.
    ===

    All and all an excellent article and love your ideas and takes. Still like that meadow in the yard picture. I’m bookmarking you to my Google favourites.

    Thanks, Kevin

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