Gardening on the Planet, Science Says

Challenging Our Assumptions

To be the best gardeners we can be we need to challenge our own assumptions from time to time. Recently, I have been doing just that by reading Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Garden – Saving Nature in a Post Wild World.

Rambunctious Garden 2

In this book, Marris questions the practicality and even the validity of trying to restore our ecosystems to some “pristine” state. Specifically, she challenges those who see the North American landscape as it existed before contact with European colonists as some kind of ideal to be recreated if at all possible. In this Marris runs counter to the main current of contemporary ecological restoration.

Marris doesn’t offer up just opinions. She is a writer for a leading scientific journal, Nature, and is conversant with the latest ecological research (or at least, the latest as of the publication of her book in 2011). Her book is heavily footnoted and includes a 12 ½ page bibliography.

She makes a strong case for re-evaluating our blanket condemnation of exotic species, citing studies that have found that sometimes the introduction of an exotic species into an ecosystem can actually benefit natives, such as the exotic birds that have taken on the job of indigenous seed dispersal in Hawaii. And she questions whether, in the face of global warming and a worldwide ecological disturbance, a situation that essentially turns the whole planet into a novel ecosystem, whether stirring the pot genetically may not be essential. “Indeed,” she writes, “as the planet warms and adapts to human domination, it is the exotic species of the world that are busy moving, evolving, and forming new ecological relationships. The despised invaders of today may well be the keystone species of the future’s ecosystems.”

Dandelions are an important early-season pollen source for native bees

Dandelions are an important early-season pollen source for native bees

Maybe, maybe not. In any event. it’s worth considering whether we nativists have grown too dogmatic.

I once attended a symposium, for example, where a representative of the National Park Service urged us New Englanders to purge our landscape of every plant species that was not here when Columbus landed in the Bahamas (the introduced animals, presumably, including huge numbers of exotic Homo sapiens, were to escape this massacre). Given the transformation of the landscape that has occurred in the centuries since 1492, to do this is, of course, utterly impossible. What’s more, as Marris points out in her book, this impulse toward genetic cleansing denigrates the functioning hybrid ecosystems that have arisen over the last 400 years. If we truly want to maximize biodiversity and ecosystem services in a period of rapid, unprecedented change, I believe we will have to be pragmatic above all else.

Read Emma Marris’ book. It may make you angry, but I guarantee it will make you think.

Posted by on March 6, 2017 at 7:53 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Science Says.

18 responses to “Challenging Our Assumptions”

  1. Nell says:

    Emma Marris is one of a number of writers and speakers deployed by the Breakthrough Institute, which among other things is trying to rehabilitate nuclear power as “green”, to promote natural gas as a way to reduce the use of coal, and to combat the carbon tax as a tool to slow climate change. They’re funded mostly by the Pritzker family, which goes a long way in explaining the warm reception their ideas received in the Obama administration.

    To the main point of the book and post: Setting up ecosystem restoration and native plants advocacy as some kind of biological version of historic preservation is a straw-man exercise. As several previous commenters note, it’s about fostering the life that depends on complex, co-evolved organisms. For gardeners (and landscape designers and land manager etc. etc.), this is an opportunity to make a real difference. It’s too early to throw up our hands and ignore ecological principles in the patches of earth where we can have an affect.

  2. Brooke Beebe says:

    Well said, Laura.

  3. Brooke Beebe says:

    Very nicely put!

  4. Jodie cook says:

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the fact that using generic non-native plants is quickly robbing our regions of a unique sense of place.

    Particularly here in Southern California, where one can drive for miles without seeing a single plant that evolved here, co-evolving with our native soil, micro and macro-organisms and climate. We look to unmanaged areas and state parks and they look one way, everywhere else looks like a crazy quilt of plants from everywhere; Japan, China, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada. From calla lilies to cacti we can grow almost anything here…and we do…often in the same garden or commercial landscape.

    I agree with a previous comment about the ongoing tendency to treat plants like outdoor decorative tchotchkes. Collectively, though, choosing native plants for our urban and suburban landscapes and gardens is the only thing that will guarantee us all our genius loci, our unique spirit of place.

  5. Brian Tremback says:

    While most non-native plants don’t deserve the evil reputation they sometimes receive, we should also remember that plants are not independent actors. Every species supports a vast contingent of bacteria, fungus, worms, insects, birds, and mammals. But often the reason for the over-exuberance of non-natives is that they left behind most of these species and now have no dependents to support. Given their poorer integration with their new surroundings, why not prefer natives to non-natives if at all possible? Burning bush (or the next new invasive) may one day become a team-playing, keystone species, but that may not be for thousands of years – its ultimate fate is not something we can predict. And if it displaces native species, there may be more species lost than gained in this wager.

    As gardeners, we have a responsibility to support our local ecosystems. If gardening is to be something more than collecting photosynthetic knick-knacks, we need to look beyond show gardens and actually contribute to the maintenance of our ecological legacy.

  6. Maryk says:

    Yes– non-natives and dandelions may apply! No need to be dogmatic.

    Also, recommend calling your congressional representatives and asking them to suoport the “Botany Bill” which calls for federal investment in botanical research and education in botanical science and for the use of locally adapted native plants in federal landscaping and restoration projects.

  7. Tom Christopher says:

    Thank you for the reading list.

  8. Mary McAllister says:

    Thank you for telling your readers about Rambunctious Garden. Although it is one of the early books in defense of novel ecosystems, it is not the first. The first was Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience by David Theodoropoulos. It was published in 2003, at a time when there were few empirical scientific studies that have since overturned most of the hypotheses of invasion biology.

    The second was Invasion Biology by Mark Davis, Professor of Ecology at Macalester College. It was aimed at an academic audience and is therefore more difficult for the general public to read. However, it has the advantage of citing hundreds of scientific studies that find little empirical evidence to support claims of ecological superiority of native plants. Professor Davis will speak at the forthcoming conference of Beyond Pesticides on April 29, 2017.

    Several books have been published after Rambunctious Garden. Where do camels belong? By Ken Thompson is written from the British perspective. That’s an important viewpoint because the modern version of nativism in the natural world originates in Britain from the publications of Charles Elton in 1958. Thompson’s book is an amusing and engaging read that focuses on the absurdities of making meaningless distinctions between native and non-native species.

    The next book is also written by a Brit. The New Wild by Fred Pearce is similar to Rambunctious Garden in reporting specific “invasions” all over the world that are caused by changes in underlying changes in the environment and the pointless attempt to reverse those conditions by attacking the symptoms rather than the causes.

    The most recent book is Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion. This book is unique in its focus on the use of pesticides by the “restoration” industry. Ms. Orion believes in the benefits of restoration, but she is opposed to the use of pesticides for that purpose. None of the other books say anything about the poisoning of the environment in the pursuit of an historical landscape.

    Nativism in the natural world is an international phenomenon. The Australian and New Zealand versions focus more on killing animals than plants. There are also books written about that version of nativism. Bill Benfield’s War on Nature is a horrific tale of the rodenticides being used to kill animals in New Zealand.

    By all means, keep reading.

  9. kermit says:

    We cannot restore North America to the ecosystem it was before people. The First Nation peoples themselves altered the landscape drastically, starting at least 13,000 years ago. With so many established species, and so many extinct species, all of the changes happening, and the reduced habitats… restoring what was will simply not happen.

    So the question becomes, of the options actually available to us, which is the best path?

  10. Easy Shed says:

    I see she worked there for awhile, also writes for Slate and The Onion, and wants the reader to know that she is not an ecologist. Planting native in many habitats is impossible. Native soil is gone, native climate is gone, native wildlife greatly reduced.

  11. Laura says:

    I am neither an ecologist nor an experienced gardener, but I see the recent push for natives not as an effort to time travel back to a pristine ecological time, but as an attempt to preserve the unique flora and fauna that currently exist. In my own garden, I am not trying to recreate a perfect prairie but to attract and sustain wildlife. My former exotics provided very little compared to the hum of life that now exists in my native dominated garden. I realize climate change is here and that the current US government’s anti-science stance will likely exacerbate the problem, but I find the idea that invasive exotics will provide the key to future survival quite pessimistic. I am not ready to give up the fight or hope yet! That said, I haven’t read her work so perhaps there is more for me to learn about the topic.

  12. Carol Allen says:

    Until science has a better understanding of soil microb/plant interdenpendencies can we afford to embrace alien invasive plants as just the next taxon cycle? Marris is no scientist and her arguments are carefully crafted to make her point. I fear her book will influence policy makers as well as gardeners who do not have a broad enough education and experince base to see the book as what it is – an opinion piece.

  13. Tom Christopher says:

    Actually Emma Marris was comparing Hawaii where introduced birds have taken over the seed distribution formerly performed by now extinct indigenous species, with Guam where there are no introduced birds to replace the extinct indigenous ones. Apparently in Guam the flora is being entirely reorganized (and not beneficially) by the lack of seed distributors.
    One may disagree with Marris but her take on these issues is sophisticated and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

  14. Easy Shed says:

    Thanks for including us in your wonderful review.

  15. skr says:

    That review was more of a polemic than a review.

  16. Marcia says:

    Not sure I’m a fan. I think we have to be careful that we should necessarily give credence to one’s ideas simply because one is a freelance writer for Nature. I see she worked there for awhile, also writes for Slate and The Onion, and wants the reader to know that she is not an ecologist.

    “The despised invaders of today may well be the keystone species of the future’s ecosystems.”
    “Maybe. Maybe not.”

    Exactly. Maybe not.
    Do we want to wait and see?

    I’m sure those exotic birds that disperse indigenous seeds in Hawaii also do a fine job dispersing invasive plant seeds. As deliberate introductions of ornamentals are THE primary source of invasive plants in the United States, how about we try stopping the sale of the worst offending non-natives and halt their invasion?

    I understand that this is a hot topic. There are some critical reviews of the book out there.

  17. tara dillard says:

    Wonderful starting point.

    I would like to know so much more about the relationship of plant roots in the soil with mycorrizhal fungi, earth worms, ants, grubs, you get the idea, leading to frogs, dragonflies, moles, snakes, birds, etc.

    Planting native in many habitats is impossible. Native soil is gone, native climate is gone, native wildlife greatly reduced.

    Much like our bodies having 4 major biomes unrelated to ourselves, what are the myriad biomes plants need?

    This is a great start, this book.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

  18. Laura Munoz says:

    Hmmm…I can’t help but make the comparison of North America’s non-native plant ecosystem to its non-native human population. I’m sure I’m not the first to do this. I may read this book, but in regard to my garden, I think I’ll continue gardening in the way I have for years: a mix of natives and non-natives. I treasure both. Certain non-native plant thugs who set out to conquer the world are banned from my garden, kind of like the mafia or Mexican drug lords.

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