Recently, our English partner in GardenRanting – Anne Wareham – commented (on this post), “It would be useful for someone from the UK to know more about why native plants in America are fundamentally different from others, so that they impact on design this way.”
Good question! And I promised to answer, starting with the disclaimer that I can only speak for my region (since in the U.S. there are so many different ones).
Native Large, Deciduous Trees – We’ve Got ’em!
Here in the Maryland, like much of the East, land was mostly covered in deciduous forest, so there are plenty of excellent deciduous trees to choose from that are native here. And according to Doug Tallamy, trees like White Oaks are the most important native plants for the wildlife we want to preserve and protect.
Conifers? Not So Much
Here in the East, native conifers are few and far between – at least ones that would fit in most gardens. Sources agree:
- Margaret Roach’s favorite conifers include just one native to her New York garden – a dwarf White Pine.
- The Birds and Blooms list of dwarf conifers for small spaces includes a creeping Juniper that’s native, plus Arborvitae and Bald Cypress.
- Fine Gardening recommends the Eastern White Pine, Colorado Spruce and Western Arborvitae – all U.S. natives but not here in the East. One more list from Fine Gardening includes no natives to eastern half of U.S.
Now for shrubs – the plants that form the bones of our home gardens, that make them look like gardens even in winter, these are the nonnative plants we need the most, in my experience and observation.
Of all the shrubs and small trees I’ve grown in my two Maryland gardens, the only natives are Ninebark, Fothergilla, Redbud, Dogwood, and some of the near-native Oakleaf Hydrangeas. None are evergreen.
Now for the nonnatives. Pictured above are some that have been major contributors to my gardens: Caryopteris, Weigelia, Acuba, Crepe Myrtle, Spirea, Pieris japonica, Lacecap Hydrangeas, Beautyberry, Forsythia, Roses and Nandina. Others not pictured include Korean Boxwood, Azaleas, False Holly, Purple Smokebush, Koreanspice and Doublefile Viburnum, Japanese Maple, Arborvitae, Chinese Juniper, Acuba, Abelia, and Mock Orange.
And these are the nonnative evergreen shrubs I’ve used as foundation plants – the ‘Otto Luyken’ laurels above in my former garden (plus Korean Boxwoods), and below, Azalea, Spirea, ‘Goshiki’ Osmanthus, and Nandina along the front of my current home.
The Need for More Landscape-Worthy Shrubs
A writer for Ecolandscaping.org addresses this problem in his article High Impact Native American Shrubs”. (Spoiler alert – there’s not much except Ninebark.) Bolding by me.
One of the components of my research and extension program at the University of Connecticut has been the evaluation of native shrubs for landscape suitability.
One of the issues associated with native plants has been their blind recommendation without knowing their landscape adaptability and the false notion that all native plants are well suited for landscape purposes. For example, highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is commonly recommended as a substitute for invasive winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) because both have vibrant red fall foliage. However, blueberry is not well adapted to the locations where winged euonymus is used, and it performs poorly or dies. Failed attempts at using native plants result in future reluctance of homeowners, landscapers and growers to embrace native species as viable alternatives to invasive species.
The green industry would benefit from a broadened palette of versatile and adaptable native plants to meet the growing desire to utilize natives in landscaping.
Speaking of blind recommendations of native plants, one often-recommended source of information for home gardens is this booklet of native plants from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Its meagre photos and descriptions give no indication as to which plants perform well in actual gardens, but this inappropriate resource continues to be cited because nothing appropriate exists. So far, anyway.
The Problem of Groundcovers
Groundcovers are another essential plant group in successful landscapes, the most common one being turfgrass. I quit lawns about 12 years ago and have tried dozens of alternative groundcovers since. With precipitation, which we have here, ground must be covered or weeds will do it for us. And I’d rather cover ground with plants than with mulch.
The only successful native groundcover I’ve found and recommend is Packera aurea, a woodland plant that prefers shade or part sun. The nonnative ones that perform well in my garden are ‘Ice Dance’ Carex. Sedum takesimense, Mondo Grass, Comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum), Creeping Jenny, Liriope and Periwinkle. I hasten to add that none are growing where they might harm natural areas.
Annuals and Bulbs
Naturally, because this region has freezing temps in winter, none of the annuals that I grow – Zinnias, Sweet Potato Vine, Coleus, Iresine, and Morning Glory, and Bronze Fennel – are native, so they’d be missing from an all-native garden. My spring-blooming bulbs would be missing too – Daffodils, Grape Hyacinths and Spanish Bluebells.
Sun-Loving Native Perennials – Some Great Choices
Now for some good news! For a part of the country that was once forest and will revert to forest if given the chance, it’s surprising that there are so many sun-loving native perennials to choose from. In perusing my photo folder named “Favorite Perennials,” I came across some great native plants that have performed well in my gardens.
Above are Joe Pye Weed, Spiderwort, Aster, Amsonia hubrichtii, Goldenrod, Rudbeckia and Purple Coneflower. (The Coneflower may or may not be native to this region; some experts say it was introduced in the East by Lewis and Clark.)
I also currently grow these sun-loving native perennials: Crossvine, Honeysuckle (Lornicera sempervirens), Butterfly Weed (my new favorite perennial), Woodland Aster, Coreopsis, and Little Bluestem.
Sadly, perennials alone don’t make for a great-looking home garden. So when people ask me about pollinator gardens, for example, I say they’re a great addition to home landscapes but by themselves, no substitute for one that looks good all year round.
Favorite Nonnative Perennials
I’ve also grown many well-adapted nonnative perennials, including Daylilies, ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum, Siberian Iris, Lamb’s Ear, Rose Campion, Russian Sage, Mexican Evening Primrose, Hosta, Pulmonaria, Catmint and Autumn Fern.
I hope this post demonstrates the contribution that nonnative plants make toward biodiversity in our gardens. I’m no ecologist (obviously) but wouldn’t these gardens be less biodiverse without the dozens of great plants from other places?
Back to you, Anne
I hope that answers your excellent question.
I love to see a nuanced treatment of native plant recommendations! And from Susan gardening in my zone — a perfect garden rant. Not even too hateful about the “exotic invasive” vs “weedy native” language divide at all.
I wanna hear more about native sedges that really work, not in an ornamental planting, but as a lawn alternative.
I’m trying Arizona Cypress and Chuck Hayes Gardenia as my evergreens this year. 50% native is a good goal for me.
In your list of nonnative shrubs, there are native versions of several that I’m trying to see their utility for residential front yard gardens:
Refreshing. I get to read some rabid pro-native rants on some local sites in my northern area versus the “but it’s pretty so who cares side”. Having someone list what would be missing if we left out these great staples of many (most?) gardens all over North America, is so sobering. Gotta be a middle ground and you’ve found it.
Thank you for this article. It’s good to see someone highlight the fact that native plants don’t always do well in gardens (blueberries being just one example).
Actually I don’t find this article nuanced at all.
It just continues the tired and unnecessary native-vs-non native dichotomy (emphasis on the VS), including the click-bait title – which admittedly made me click. The reason to have natives in gardens is because food webs are collapsing around the world, including where you live. This is why many entomologists, wildlife biologists, botanists, and ecologists are alarmed and writing books and articles for lay readers who only view plants through the narrowly focused lens of aesthetics.
Unless you live in an old growth forest or in a rural community with two acre zoning, planned developments are usually disproportionately and artificially weighted toward plants from other continents with all their requisite changes in cultivation practices (more acid/less acid, more water/less, more npk/less, etc).
There is no problem with 30 percent of your garden being inhabited by plants from Asia or Northern Europe but for complex food webs to function you need a majority of natives. Studies show preferential visits by wild bees to native plants. This is just one example of a species that cares what you grow. Google it.
Of course some native don’t like your garden. Some exotics won’t like it either. Knowing how plants grow is just good horticulture.
Pitting native plants against exotics and making natives the losers is just plain sad.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. You said explained the imperative reasons for planting natives beautifully.
We are way past the “what do I want to look at?” and “What’s expedient for ME?” stage. Natives are crucial for reasons far larger than us; and yer, paradoxically, we create peril for the human species by not adapting and changing.
As is pitting exotics against natives and making exotics the losers. Which is by far the more popular argument at the moment. Susan is merely reacting to that incessant chant. – MW
I don’t mind if people want to plant non-natives only or have a native only garden—my own garden is a mix, though I tend towards natives and am working to incorporate more. My problem is a: continued writing like this—just write about the non-natives you like and move on. And b: the sentence at the end about biodiversity because good gravy, that’s a train wreck. To me it is pretty clear that more gardeners don’t venture out beyond their own garden and if they do they haven’t made much of an effort to actually notice what is growing around them and differentiating how habitats have changed due to invasive species. I’m generalizing here because I do not know every author or commenter here and their experiences with nature beyond the garden, but from gleaning from years of watching social media and blogs, it is pretty evident this is the case. It’s also just annoying to see certain regions focused on continuously (*cough cough, NE and Mid-Atlantic*) when you branch out and options change. I can’t grow a blueberry but you know what’s common and native and does well across the south? Yaupon. Ilex decidua. Ilex opaca. Crataegus species. Forestiera species. Wax myrtle. Dwarf palmetto. Get on iNaturalist and *see* what’s growing near you. It is far more diverse than anyone is giving credit for here. Your problem is the horticulture industry and their ability or inability to provide some of these plants for sale…but you can find a lot of them if you look hard enough. It’s beyond time for the industry to stop finding endless ways to cultivate freaking nandina and get some stalwart natives into the trade.
Read some actual ecology books. Grow some non-natives and tropicals if you want, but stop trying to say incorporating them increases biodiversity when the research on that is spotty at best. Just admit you enjoy growing them and move on. Alright, I’ll stop ranting now *hah*
The religious fervor related to native plant design in the U.S. seems to be very much in contrast to how natives are treated in the U.K., where the University of Sheffield’s research affirmed the usefulness of adapted non-natives to generalist insects. Could this be due to the paucity of native U.K. plants compared to North America? Perhaps after multiple glacial events, U.K. insects have had to adapt to exotic vegetation or fail? A fairly recent audit showed that Great Dixter’s famed long border is home to an astonishing amount of wildlife, which might lead us to conclude that exotic garden plants are a boon for U.K. insects. North America is blessed with an abundance of native vegetation that supports many specialist insects that rely on specific plants for survival, so our garden design choices may pack a decidedly greater ecological punch. If Americans want to halt the precipitous decline of our native wildlife, we must use a significantly higher percentage of native plants. We should press homeowner associations and cities to stop codifying public preferences for the Asian evergreen collars that ring our home foundations. Taxpayers should refuse to fund miles of non-native mown turf along new public roadsides.
Although I support the need to challenge aesthetic prejudice against native plants, I am not a native plant zealot. There is nothing sinful about planting near natives and adapted non-invasive exotic plants. I love my own ‘Goshiki’ Osmanthus and all the plants Susan mentioned, so I do not propose we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can have our gingko trees, if we also plant native oaks. We can have our Japanese maples, but we should also plant American beautyberry.
Here in Texas, Zone 8, we are fortunate to have a wide selection of perfectly gorgeous native plants to fill our gardens, from groundcovers to trees. I’ll bet that Anne has some of them in her U.K. garden. Keep calm and garden on.
There is a fascinating study by Peter Groffman et al “Ecological Homogenization of Urban USA” that looks at landscaping in Boston, Miami, Phoenix, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Minneapolis and finds that the residential landscape in one city looks more like those in the other cities than in the area surrounding it. Phoenix looks like Boston.
So while I’m not orthodox about native plants, what passes as “nice yards and gardens”, as determined by developers and the HGTVs of the nation, bothers me a lot. One, they’re boring and depressing. Two, they most definitely have damaged flora, fauna, water, etc.
If these landscapes reflected the ecologies they live in, I don’t think I would mind as much. So Phoenix uses plants from desert areas; Los Angeles uses Mediterranean plants, etc.
Susan, I agree with Jodie Cook. I also question your understanding of biodiversity. What percentage of your garden is native? The more native plant/shrub/tree species that you have, the more biodiversity you will have in your garden. Choosing non-native species that provide no food or nectar for insects, bees, and birds, is not contributing to biodiversity. I agree that you do not have to have 100% natives but I would posit that there are plenty of natives that are attractive and will flourish in the right setting in our region. After all, they developed here over the millennia. And by the way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not the National Park Service. They are both within the Department of the Interior but have separate functions.
Thanks for the correction!
I agree with the comments about developers. In my daughter’s Atlanta neighborhood there are only severely clipped non-native evergreen shrubs. I have attempted to make a very small stab at adding actual flowers (not even worrying about natives) only for her to be met with nasty letters from her HOA. We have a LOT of education to do of our institutions and organizations, never mind individual homeowners.
Well, I comment only cautiously on something which is such a hot topic to another country. It does seem that British pollinators are comparatively unfussy.
BUT we are reprimanded for calling any plant ‘native’ for totally different reasons. Your article would be shock horror here for the very use of the word ‘native’. Why? Here is an example:
“Wisteria has “colonial roots”, according to a sightseeing guide funded by Transport for London which has branded botanical terms “native” and “invasive” as offensive.
Classifying plants as “exotic” also has “colonial connotations” as it symbolises the “mysteriously foreign”, the authors of the map claim.” The Telegraph
This is now all the rage. To avoid being cancelled America must clearly not only adjust its planting but also its terminology.
Anne asks tough questions. But I’m not convinced that your ‘list of plant lists’ really answers Anne’s original question, which was about why native plants tend to work more effectively in the context of larger-scale designed plant communities inspired by the wild. That is Darrel Morrison’s original point.
This is a remarkably common oversight, actually. We caught up in thinking in terms of plant species and origins – when we should be thinking about creating integrated plant communities, adapted to the nuances of one’s garden, its particular site conditions, how it can connect to the macro environment.
Moreover, we should be aware of how to create gardens with aesthetic value that also optimize ecological benefits. This is more advanced, and to be blunt, it’s a rare thing to find.
In Germany, naturalistic designers think in reverse – starting with the big picture of identifying habitat and plant community first, then you select your plants based on principles of plant sociability. That’s the benefit of serious biogeographical research and trials conducted over decades at gardens like Hermannshof. They know their sh**t.
There is no doubt that in a garden context, you can combine native and introduced species to optimize not only aesthetics, but to amplify the ecological complexity of one’s garden as well. I can point to specific studies that support this as well.
If you wish to focus on purely using natives, that is great. But it’s also not unreasonable to allow room for a different diversity in the gardens of others, and the people who choose to make them.
“There is no doubt that in a garden context, you can combine native and introduced species to optimize not only aesthetics, but to amplify the ecological complexity of one’s garden as well.” Amen Tony. – MW
“Now for shrubs – the plants that form the bones of our home gardens, that make them look like gardens even in winter, these are the nonnative plants we need the most, in my experience and observation.”
The EXACT opposite here in Southern California. The native shrubs like Rhus ovatifolia, Rhus integrifolia, Heteromeles arbutifolia, Malosma, Prunus ilicifolia and so forth are compared to exotics superior garden “bones”, once established requiring no irrigation beyond the normal winter rainfall, and being slow growing, require much less maintenance, and producing much less green waste. In addition they are more attractive to, and beneficial for, native songbirds. The Rhus in particular are more fire-suppressant as well. Location, location.
Well, I’ll be damned!
Dream on, people. The overwhelming majority of yards in my neighborhood, and probably most in suburbia America, have almost nothing in them, except whatever serves as a lawn. At least almost none of them waste a lot money and chemicals on trying to grow monoculture lawns. They just have whatever grows and most manage to keep it cut. Actually it would be better if they just let it grow as that would at least support a nice mix of insects, but that won’t fly with city ordinances. They can’t be bothered with plants, native or otherwise. But they do love my yard, which is a mix of both and it is going to stay that way. I can’t count the number of native plants that have died in my gardens. Quite frankly a lot of them are not that easy to grow. Do I have natives? Definitely. Some are considered weeds but are very attractive. But I’m not trying to grow a native habitat – I’m tending a garden because I enjoy it, it looks nice, and it keeps me sane after my day job in IT. And maybe it will inspire others that couldn’t be bothered to try a few plants in their yards. If not, at least they can enjoy looking at mine.
Finding data bases of native and native-cultivars requires a lot of research by the average home owner. But once they learn the list it’s very easy to expand a garden with natives or even mix some natives into an existing non-native garden. Every native plant counts! Once homeowners see for themselves that natives are so much easier to grow than non-natives and are just as beautiful they are often amazed at the variety of plants available. Plants such as Amsonia, Baptisia, Calamintha, Echinacea, Penstemon, Coereopsis, and Agastache are very easy to grow and stunningly beautiful to look at, plus they provide nectar for pollinators. Adding in some berry producing shrubs for the birds such as native and native-cultivars of Viburnum, Ilex, and Elderberry will make quite an impact on the diversity of your landscape.
You sparked a terrific conversation Susan. The single most infuriating blithely offered native substitution I continue to come across in homeowner-not-gardener PSAs is blueberry. Thank you for including the excerpt from Thomas Berger’s article. “However, blueberry is not well adapted to the locations where winged euonymus is used, and it performs poorly or dies. Failed attempts at using native plants result in future reluctance of homeowners, landscapers and growers to embrace native species as viable alternatives to invasive species.” – MW
I won’t add to the comments about native vs. non-native as the other commenters have done a good job. I would like to comment on the reference to Fine Gardening’s recommending Colorado Spruce as a good conifer for non-west coast gardens. Planting non-native conifers seems to be a religion (along with acres of lawn) here in the upper Midwest. My property has acres of them. The problem is with climate change and the fact that our climate doesn’t really match Colorado’s, the Colorado spruces are stressed and are being attacked by fungus and bacterial diseases and dying. This is also true for other conifers like Scots pine and Austrian pine and other non-native spruces. Sad that Fine Gardening is recommending them.
Great article. I use native plants in gardens but not because they are native. Because they contribute to the design. The idea that natives = good, non-native=bad, is born of ignorance or a radicalism that is emanating from professionals and some botanical gardens. Many of these people don’t seem to appreciate Gardens at all.
I appreciated this article and the comments. It is much more important to plant straight species natives to support local insect larvae than for the nectar and pollen provided. The nectar and pollen are great! But many non-native plants can also provide these as long as the plants are species and not sterile or double-flowered. So, think baby food. Baby insects are fussy. They want the plain green leaves of the host plants with which they have evolved. Once you have lots of larvae eating your plants, you get lots of birds feeding their young these baby insects. This is very critical right now as both our bird and insect populations are in deep nose dives. So don’t forget the babies!
Too bad this is seen as a contest. Native plants — That is, actually native to your area and suited to your garden conditions (“Right plant, right place” as in any gardening) — bring important and sometimes irreplaceable benefits to an area, especially urban and suburban spaces where lawns tend to dominate and suitable food and shelter of native critters can be scarce. To ignore this is to be either naive or disingenuous. This does not mean that non-invasive exotic plants do not have a place — sometimes even an important one — in a garden in terms of wildlife support and of course for gardening beauty and enjoyment. Ignorant and irresponsible claims, practices and recommendations regarding native *and* non-native plants are easy to cite; let that be a call to awareness and honest self-education among gardeners, following the science about natives, exotics and invasive wherever that may lead, whether or not the findings fit our personal preferences. I have no doubt there will be plenty of scope in there for sustaining and sustainable, beautiful and enjoyable gardening in there that includes your favourites (so long as they not eco-problematic in your area, of course)!