As a follow up to Elizabeth’s post last week remarking on the sorrowful tone of Margaret Renkl’s NYT article on non-native spring color, The AHS kindly allowed GardenRant to run an excerpt of my recent column in The American Gardener this month. A link to the full article is available at the end of the excerpt. Please consider supporting the American Horticultural Society and the valuable work they do by becoming a member this year.
LAST SPRING , a friend volunteered her time to create a pollinator-friendly garden that would overlook a large railway hub in her small city. She publicized the project on social media to solicit donations from the public, and her dedication to regreen an industrial space was universally applauded—until she published the planned plant list that contained a mixture of native and non-native plants.
Three of her would-be donors informed her that if the plants were all native, they would oblige. If not, her re-greening project didn’t warrant their support.
Forget about the Panicum, Coreopsis, Achillea, and Echinacea that had made the list. Those wildlife-friendly natives were going to be sharing space with cultivars of Hemerocallis, frequented by butterflies and hummingbirds but originally from east Asia; Caryopteris, beloved of wild bees, but shamefully sharing the same provenance; and Buddleia, known commonly and justifiably as the butterfly bush, but whose tough habit and ability to re-green industrial wastelands of its own accord has made it a pariah.
Better to have nothing, these three felt, than to support the willful planting of non-native plants into this inhospitable environment.
Thankfully, my friend persevered. The site’s compacted and polluted soil was lightened and amended, and a melting pot of native and non-native plants was established, creating a garden that both beautified an ecologically damaged space and provided habitat for wildlife displaced decades before.
MOVEMENTS MERGING TOGETHER
People build gardens for many reasons. In recent years, however, the popularity of building gardens specifically to attract an abundance of wildlife has grown exponentially. Such a worthy cause has attracted the otherwise indifferent to a more garden-focused life. It is no doubt one of the reasons we experienced such a resurgence in gardening in 2020, as people forced to quarantine at home became reacquainted with their landscapes and began to observe the many creatures that also inhabited those spaces.
At the same time, a parallel movement has grown in visibility and vociferousness. The promotion and protection of native plants has gained an incredible following throughout the many geographically diverse regions of North America.
It has slowly trickled down from industry leaders who have devoted careers to their study, to advocacy groups and Extension agents, and eventually to our schools and everyday gardeners. Awareness of the much-touted superiority of native plants is so great that even some non-gardeners looking for quick solutions to suburban lots mention it as a requirement during the annual spring trip to the garden center.
It is not surprising, therefore, that these two movements should meet and marry, creating a sub-movement that supports and promotes the planting of native species to build more biodiverse, wildlife-friendly gardens.
But as my friend’s experience shows, many native plant proponents go further— favoring the exclusion of all exotic species in the landscape to achieve this worthy goal. The purest disciples of the movement also eschew the use of “nativars,” or cultivated varieties of native plants, for their straight-species parents—regardless of merit.
“Merit” is the key word in that last sentence, and precisely the characteristic we should be plucking out of this mire of easy absolutes. Plant species should be evaluated on their merits and their faults, and how they adapt to, function in, and sometimes remediate specific conditions of soil, exposure and climate, all while providing for wildlife populations.
Making these determinations irrespective of labels that designate a plant “good” or “bad” based on human chronologies and borders will aid us (and the wildlife we adore) to navigate a planet facing the pressures of climate change and overpopulation.
The use of native plants should be encouraged as a means to an end, not the means to an end. Reflexive demonization of alien species ignores the beautiful but complex truth that nature fights to find a way—and for a planet navigating the pressures of climate change and overpopulation, that just might be our saving grace.
“Native plants are plants that grow naturally in a particular area or ecosystem” says the introduction to native plants in the Bureau of Land Management’s Junior Explorer Activity Book. A harmless sentence in a child’s primer—until you recognize the subtext quietly absorbed by young minds: Non-native plants are not natural.
“Natural” is a powerful word, and today’s young people are tomorrow’s consumers and decision makers. If something is not natural, it is artificial, and suspect. And yet, in this context—pitting plant against plant—the absolute opposite is true.
A strict adherence to a “pure” native plant landscape, with all of the editing, eradicating, and protecting necessary to preserve it, puts an unnatural construct on nature and natural selection—a process that does not issue passports but instead relies on ecological adaptability to determine if a plant will survive or fail. Nature does not tag favorites beyond these criteria, and gives no preference to human economies or personal attachments.
IS A STATIC ECOSYSTEM “NATURAL”?
Were I to give up on my annual quest to rid my woodland of multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), I am well aware that a very natural process would resume once I stopped directing traffic.
This invasive species would once again take the upper hand in the landscape, working inevitably toward a new, balanced, but completely unrecognizable ecosystem whose evolutionary partners I can no more predict than I can control. It might take 5 or 500 of my lifetimes to create, but a human lifetime on a 4.5-billion-year-old planet is many times less than a second, a fact that we appear to have forgotten in our myopic quest to curate static ecosystems…
Read the rest of this article HERE in the March/April issue of The American Gardener, the magazine of The American Horticultural Society.
Excellent article! This is absolutely right! In our butterfly garden, I use mostly natives, but also non-natives that I know some butterflies specifically prefer. Obsessing over native vs. non-native might be interesting to some people. But the butterflies don’t give a good g**damn!
Excellent and thank you. There are folks who demonize any plant that isn’t native and there is a parallel universe of “plant shamers”. Growing a hosta is not equivalent to throwing your plastic bottle into the ocean. I appreciate your even-handed assessment of what a garden can be.
imagine if they got their way ….
gardeners would be limited to purchasing only “approved ” native plants . allowed only to simply plant them and walk away .. as directed .
Most nurseries and even the deadly Big Box stores would be limited to plants only native to that area .
oh, no tomatoes allowed to be planted in New Jersey any longer too.
Gardeners are allowed to return only to pull out any “alien species ” that made it across ‘ the border ” of acceptance and dared to grow in the promised land in which they are not welcome.
as Spring turns into summer, short term flowering natives, go to seed, and grow into a big tangle.
Insects of all kinds move in and thrive in the dried out stems and fallen leaves …. fast forward ahead to Fall .
and repeat, but add some mold for appearances ,and let it all sit there for winter .
mission accomplished !!
: the basic abandoned field/lot look for all that effort and money .
mixing ” exotics ” into the garden not only feeds the pollinators, but also feeds that desire to dream and be creative with color, texture and scent . To remember familiar places: Grandma’s Garden on a Summer afternoon. and wonderful trips to distant locations and maybe grow a living souvenir you admired ,, perhaps even a plant “native” to somewhere other than where you live …
Thank you for writing this excellent article and to American Gardener for allowing Garden Rant to republish it. I hope it finds its way into Margaret Renkl’s hands.
This is the letter to the editor (unpublished to date) of New York Times that I co-signed with Peter Del Tredici, Research Scientist, Emeritus, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. It addresses a some of the misguided dogma in Ms. Renkl’s unfortunate opinion piece.
“Margaret Renkl’s March 28 op-ed piece presents a highly distorted view of what constitutes nature in the twenty-first century. She seems to think that changes she sees in her garden reflect choices made by gardeners in past decades when, in fact, they also reflect the changing climate that now brings spring to us weeks earlier than just 20 years ago.
“Ms. Renkl is mistaken when she notes that although humans are a migratory species, the “vast majority of plants aren’t.” Biogeographical studies have shown that plants have been on the move for millions of years and that many North American species migrated here from Asia when sea levels were much lower than they are now.
“It is particularly disturbing to read that Ms. Renkl considers the gardens in her suburban neighborhood “blooming wastelands where the flowers feed nobody.” She’s apparently been reading so much nativist propaganda that she can no longer see with her own eyes that native birds and insects happily feed on both native and non-native plants. Indeed, native birds are responsible for spreading the seeds of many non-native plants across the landscape. Research has demonstrated that the food choices of birds have nothing to do with where the plants originated.
“Ms. Renkl decries the use of pesticides to maintain a typical suburban garden yet she ignores the fact that heaps of herbicide are being applied to public lands in order to control the spread of invasive species. This contradiction apparently hasn’t occurred to her. She also denigrates the urban landscapes where a majority of the American people lives when she states that “…drive down any landscaped city street and what you are apt to see is a gorgeous blooming wasteland where the flowers feed nobody at all.” Urban and suburban landscapes help make our cities more livable for both their human and non-human inhabitants. To ignore this reality is to ignore the obvious fact that many plants and animals have adapted to our changing climate while many people delude themselves in thinking we can go back to a point in ecological time that no longer exists.”
Please do send your insightful letter to the NYTimes. I don’t know if anyone “fact checks” opinion pieces, but Renkl’s article sure needed someone to correct the misinformation.
We submitted our letter a few days after Ms. Renkl’s article was published. It hasn’t been published, so I am grateful to be able to share it here.
I found Ms. Renkl’s article unnecessarily sorrowful and an exercise in self-flagellation. In just a few words she managed to take a unifying concept – the glory and beauty of spring, and reduce it to yet another polarizing and worrying element in lives already besieged by polarization and worry. Certainly it sells the angle to an editor, but it doesn’t do anything for the conversation. Thank you for pushing back with your letter and I do hope they print it. -MW
Excellent work, Marianne. My Renkl-raised blood pressure just dropped into a healthy zone.
Thank you for giving voice to something I’ve been suspecting.
I can’t help thinking that the pro-native militia has more in common with the anti-immigrant populists than they would like to admit.
Is this a particularly American attitude? I don’t read much about it in the British gardening press. I do think there’s a strain of puritanism in most American pursuits and in gardening it rears its head, for instance, when my strictly ornamental garden is considered less worthy than a hard-working vegetable plot. Conscious design is frowned upon, too, and don’t even.suggest historical references. If echinacea is out, I wonder what they think of my clipped box topiary? But then I know, because at least one friend practically holds his nose as he passes!
Plant nativism is more powerful in the US than in Britain, but it is also very influential in Australia and New Zealand. Here is an excerpt from an article on Conservation Sense and Nonsense, written by Kelly Baldry, a landscape professional in Britain:
“I garden in England, United Kingdom – and here we just don’t have the same intensity of debate surrounding native plants and restoration projects. Instead, we have a rich diversity of plants, drawn from all over the world; and our gardens are based on the principles of freedom of expression and individual design.” https://milliontrees.me/2020/12/15/grasses-and-perennials-sustainable-planting-for-shared-spaces/
Living in New Zealand, I think the “nativist” push here is more about accepting native plants as being just as good as the plants of the old country (if not better), instead of trying to reproduce English gardens all over the place.
I certainly haven’t heard anyone proclaiming that we should do away with introduced species altogether – even the Maori introduced food plants such as kumara. But maybe it’s a matter of the circles you move in and the people you talk to.
I was referring more to the poisoning of non-native mammals in New Zealand, than the killing of non-native plants. This effort is described by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, in her article “The Big Kill. The crusade to kill mammals in New Zealand.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/big-kill This sentence in that article is a brief summary: “As the coördinator of one volunteer group put it to me, ‘We always say that, for us, conservation is all about killing things.’”
John, I think we have a tendency towards ‘puritanism’ within the human condition, period. We instinctively search for purpose and passion; and when found, can direct it with all the righteousness we might reject in other, more traditionally religious doctrines. I think that the happiest amongst us are those who recognize that there is nuance in this beautiful, complex life, and are flexible and curious. – MW
Oh, you are so right, Marianne, in my own garden I am an autocratic despot — just ask my husband who has been relegated to gardening in a remote corner of the plot. But beyond my own garden gate, I have grown much more egalitarian with age. I’m reminded of the lyrics in a song by The Byrds from years ago, “but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
I agree with the previous comments. While I do garden for pollinators and wildlife, I’m not a purist when it comes to using natives. Heck, it’s difficult to even find natives in my neck of the woods. Unlike other areas of the country, most gardeners here don’t even think of native versus non-native.
I did not read Ms. Renki’s article but what I gather from this and other posts and comments on Garden Rant is that YOU are making this into a political war. One of the above comments refers to “militias”. A comment in an earlier column by Susan Harris refered to “Nazis”. These terms are totally unacceptable. What should be done is to separate the wheat from the chaff. I do walk in my neighborhood daily. There is very little diversity to be seen. Lots of daffodils which are pretty but which don’t contribute much to the ecosystem that supports butterflies and birds. IF there is a reasonable mix of natives with cultivars, then I am happy. But if there are only cultivars and annuals purchased from big box stores that have been sprayed with pesticides, then I am upset.
Just clarifying that a commenter used the term “Nazis,” not me. I think the term is unhelpful at best.
From the tone of your comment, I can only assume that you did not read the entirety of my article, much less Ms. Renkl’s. My piece was not meant to debate hers, as it was written and submitted long before, but I am grateful to the NYT for so serendipitously timing an excellent example of the rigid thinking which is shaping the other side of this debate, and which I heartily reject.
I can assure you that my position is thoroughly apolitical, and the words with which you take offense are not mine. On the contrary, this piece is a call for moderation in the face of extreme thinking. Your wheat from chaff idiom is no different to my assertion that “Plant species should be evaluated on their merits and their faults, and how they adapt to, function in, and sometimes remediate specific conditions of soil, exposure and climate, all while providing for wildlife populations.” Illuminating the curious current phenomenon which directs nationalistic thinking towards our flora and fauna whilst condemning those abhorrent practices in human populations may be uncomfortable for those who suddenly and surprisingly find themselves illuminated, but it is only that – illumination. I am merely holding a flashlight, not lighting a torch. – MW
A HUGE bunch of thanks for your advocacy of biodiversity in the age of global migration of all life forms.
Gardeners may be preserving habitat for displaced birds and animals…like the sad survivors of the summer fires, and the fugitives from frigid weather far south this winter. We need to seek solidarity. Not superiority.
My house in Rehoboth Beach was an ecological desert: a half acre of typical suburban lawn, with a narrow strip of mostly non-native shrubs around the foundation, severely mulched with gravel. I’ve removed most of those shrubs, scraped off the gravel, quadrupled the size of the beds, and planted lots of plants, with a smattering of natives–working to add more–but the majority are still non-native plants. I was planting primarily for pollinators–specifically butterflies and hummingbirds–but was surprised when my gardens exploded with a multitude of other insects, including dragonflies. I see a lot more birds on my property as well. It’s a far cry from what a native plants purist would want to see, but it’s far better than it was, and the wildlife seem to agree.
I never saw any pollinator in my garden complain about a plant not being “native,” and thus refusing to visit it. Birds never refused to build a nest in my non-native azaleas. And how about all the invasive native plants? They get a free pass because they are natives? What about plants that migrated here thousands of years ago? Are they considered “native?” Or should we chase them off the continent?
Do we really need “racial” purity in the gardens? America to the Americans, Asia to the Asians? This sounds incredibly sad to me. Shouldn’t the primary goal be a careful selection of appropriate plants to provide as much diversity for pollinators through all 12 months of the year?
And since we talk about this: How about people who think the best, most natural garden is one where nothing is done, not even a weed pulled, including invasive weeds? It’s all native plants, hurray! And then these people order “Wildlife Habitat Garden” credentials from organizations that supposedly support the environment. Obviously, these organizations don’t care the least where their signs (of certification and approval) pop up as long as they get the $20 fee, and thus a garden full of invasive plants is now approved as Wildlife Habitat, and the carefully curated pollinator garden next door needs to be flame-torched because it contains non-native species…
I nurture the wild ginger and bloodtroot, but they are deciduous, as are many native ground covers, so I do let a patch of pacysandra to be a backdrop in my “white garden” which is a design concept and not necesarily native. Of course, pison ivy is “native” and it is lovely in the fall with its deep red color, but it can take over a garden and make it inhospitable to many unlucky people.
I have more natives than non-natives, but the non-natives are every bit as attractive to birds and insects as their native neighbors. I don’t understand the “sterile” claim.
I’ve been adding climate-friendly non-natives to my garden as well. Honestly, the palette of natives that does well in my little patch of ecosystem is fairly limited — what does well really does well, what doesn’t dies. For the sake of variety in leaf and flower form, I have a lot of well-tested, unfinicky non-natives from which to choose.
Honestly, planting natives vs. non-natives isn’t always as choice as it’s so much harder to find the natives to plant. You have to scour Craiglist and the neighborhood listserve, patronize twice-yearly plant sales at the Botanical Garden, check what’s being sold at local garden centers, and grow your own from seed (and research the seed companies to determine which don’t use neonicitinoids). And that’s aside from researching the plants themselves to determine if that native will suit or will be too thuggish! We had a great local native plant nursery close last year due to COVID, too.
Even if I bought and raised all the natives I could, I would still by necessity have a mix of native and non-native in the garden. I would love more articles on how to actually get more good native plants at an affordable price!
(Like, how on Earth do I get enough native sedges to replace the liriope groundcover that’s too thuggish? Do I raise them from seed? Is there somewhere that sells plugs? Please help.)
On another note, I’m having my local chapter of the Audubon Society evaluate my property for bird habitat! I’m excited. We’ll see how I rank and what I need to fix. I know it does involve removing invasive Japanese grass, honeysuckle, etc.
I suggest you read this study before removing honeysuckle from your yard if you are interested in birds in your yard: Amanda D. Rodewald, et. al., “Does removal of invasives restore ecological networks? An experimental approach,” Biological Invasions, March 2015
The hypothesis of this study was that “invasion of urban habitats by exotic plants was the underlying mechanism driving changes in bird-plant networks.” The study tested this hypothesis by comparing forest plots dominated by honeysuckle with those in which honeysuckle had been removed and the surrounding forest habitat replicated. They measured nesting birds, nest predators, and nest survival.
They found that the lowest overall nest survival rates were found in the plots in which honeysuckle had been removed. In other words, “…removal of invasive honeysuckle from urban forests did not restore network structure to that of rural landscapes.” The authors concede, “This finding was not consistent with our original hypothesis that invasion of forests by the exotic Amur honeysuckle was responsible for the urban-associated changes in bird-plant networks.” They conclude, “The degree to which native communities can be restored following removal of exotic plants remains unclear.”
There are also studies about increased bird populations where honeysuckle is available. There are many similar studies that report that birds are served best by diverse gardens with longer blooming periods and diverse structure and habitat. John Marzluff’s Subirdia is a comprehensive overview of how to garden for the benefit of birds.
There’s a current meme that speaks to this same issue of in/ex/clusivity:
“At the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded for who I include, than included for who I exclude.”
I read the full article in The American Gardener and commend the writer for summating such an important and touchy issue with intelligence, tolerance, and grace. I will be sharing these insights as widely as possible.
I can safely say that I do not support such thoughts. What is the difference where exactly is it inherent to grow a given flower or tree? After all, if we can plant a plant that grows somewhere in Mexico next to our house or in the garden, then what is wrong with that? It seems to me that this is even wonderful. After all, a piece of Mexico can migrate to our native garden. It is wonderful. You don’t have to travel to another country or city to do this. I only support such undertakings and would very much like to see many more such gardens.
I have read all of the comments. I am concerned that the issue of baby food is not mentioned once. Plants that provide nectar and pollen are fabulous, beautiful. I grow a ton of native and non native pollinator plants. But insect larvae have much more particular needs and they have evolved with specific plants. Baby insects = baby bird food. We are seeing huge declines in our insect and bird populations and the lack of enough larval food is one of the reasons why. This is a significant and very good reason to plant a 70/30 ratio of natives to non-natives in a garden and concentrating on keystone species for your particular region. You absolutely can have a diverse, inclusive, and bonkers-gorgeous garden, but you need to know why. It ain’t the pollination that’s the main problem.
I agree Astrid, there are many factors at play here — immediate sources of food are only one of them. However, the article does not downplay those factors in any way, as it seeks the perspective of a greater time frame than our own, and recognizes that evolutionary processes naturally account for all factors when determining whether or not a species will remain extant. If a species cannot adapt to feed or shelter its young then a species will not survive. Two of the studies to which I allude in the article may be of interest to you – one deals with the shelter issue, and the use of Rosa multiflora leaves by leaf-cutter bees in creating brood chambers, and the other discusses the adaptation of a Massachusetts butterfly species to feed its young on an invasive species (Cardamine pratensis) and thereby retain a sizeable population in the midst of what had been considered a mass extirpation from the state. There are many other studies and one hopes there will be many more. – MW (MacIvor, J Scott. “DNA barcoding to identify leaf preference of leafcutting bees.” Royal Society open science vol. 3,3 150623. 2 Mar. 2016, doi:10.1098/rsos.150623) (Herlihy, M.V., Van Driesche, R.G. & Wagner, D.L. Persistence in Massachusetts of the veined white butterfly due to use of the invasive form of cuckoo flower. Biol Invasions 16, 2713–2724 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-014-0698-x)
Thank you for your thoughtful response, Marianne. I will definitely check out the studies that you shared.
I have been saying this for years, but you have eloquently put it in writing. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!!
Great article. At work, I believe, among the Nativists in some public gardens, is a fanaticism and elitism. And just downright misinformation. The honey bees everyone mentions, are not native. And they arrive in my garden with the first hellebore flower that opens and the first snowdrop. And plenty of bullies among natives.