Recently I was surprised to hear a friend refer to daffodils as native here in Maryland, an assumption she’d made because they do so well in this region. And that’s a reasonable assumption, given how often we see assertions of superior performance by native plants.

Now I knew that daffodils aren’t native anywhere in the U.S., but upon googling the matter I was surprised by the lack of agreement on their origin, which could be Northern Europe, Southern Europe or Northern Africa.

I also stumbled upon a fascinating article called “The Daffodil Dilemma in My Wildlife Sanctuary” on the blog Nature Native Nature by a native-plant gardener in Atlanta. She writes that daffodils

…aren’t magnets for native pollinators the way native flowers are. The general rule that flowers most attractive to humans are not the most attractive to pollinators seems to fit. Daffodils offer even less value here in Georgia because they also bloom before most pollinators are out and about,

That humans and pollinators differ in their choices of flowers was a new assertion to me but it fits with the often-heard complaint that natives aren’t as ornamental (or “garden-worthy”) as the Asians preferred by American gardeners for decades.

On the plus side, she writes:

Despite how long they’ve been cultivated and how naturalized they are in wild areas, daffodils are not considered invasive, meaning they aren’t displacing native plants and don’t appear on any state invasive species list. They only exist in wild areas that have already been disturbed by man.

Daffodils also aren’t all that interesting to wildlife because they’re highly toxic.

The author cites that sources differ, big-time:

There are multiple schools of thought on the place daffodils have in nature, particularly since they’ve been cultivated since 300BC. Naturalist Mark Avery thinks intrusive feral daffodils represent human intrusion in natural areas and look like graffiti in the countryside. Nature writer Marlene Condon makes the argument that non-native plants, including naturalized daffodils, can provide an invaluable service and rehabilitate the soil where there is damage and a degraded environment by filling in an area after it has been left barren because of an altered soil profile brought by man, storms or both.

Nature Writer Marlene Condon on Eco-Services of Non-Natives

That naturally piqued my interest in Marlene Condon, whose bio concludes with this detail: “Marlene has a degree in physics. Her contributions to the scientific study of quasars and pulsars have been published in The Astrophysical Journal and The Astronomical Journal.” You don’t run into that very often in the gardening world.

Condon writes that:

By moving into these damaged areas, alien plants do what humans can’t easily do: they rehabilitate the soil…Nonnative species are able to obtain nutrients from nutrient-poor soil and transform them into plant tissue. When that plant tissue is returned to the soil (such as when leaves detach to be replaced by new ones or when the plant itself dies), it becomes humus—organic material that enriches the clay soil because its nutrients are in a form that’s usable by many more kinds of plants.

But enriching the soil is not the only thing invasive plants are doing for the environment. They are also supporting our wildlife, all of which require plants for food, shelter, and nesting sites. Every plant on invasive-species lists provides one or more of these basic necessities to our critters….

She reported on plans to kill invasives along a river in Charlottesville, Va:

Killing and then replacing the Japanese Knotweed plants along the Rivanna River will simply re-disturb the soil, setting back the clock for its rehabilitation. If people truly want to help the environment, they need to take the long view…

In fact, the whole invasive-plant issue has been a huge disaster for our environment. As a result of the rush to judgment that says all of these plants are “bad,” no matter what, herbicide usage has increased tremendously. Even most environmentalists now consider the employment of pesticides acceptable.

It’s as if poisoning the Earth is far better than allowing plants to exist in areas where they are not native. Rachel Carson’s ashes must be whirling in her grave.

What is the alternative? The alternative is that a nonnative plant should occupy a spot of ground that in most cases is degraded and incapable of supporting a native plant anyway.

I know some of our readers will disagree (a possible understatement) but I’m intrigued by such thoughtful push-back against the increasingly entrenched dogma about native plants. It’s downright refreshing when nature-loving writers expand their focus beyond pollinator choice to include other eco-services and a realistic assessment of the highly altered sites in which we expect our garden plants to thrive.

Oh, no. Azaleas, too?

And if you’re thinking what about another ubiquitous, super-performing spring-bloomer here in the mid-Atlantic – the mighty azalea – yes, I did mention that it’s East Asian. (Our regionally native ones are rarely seen in landscapes.) She took the news pretty well.

Photos of blooming bulbs at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia, taken in 2018 by the author. Photo of azaleas taken at the National Arboretum in 2005 by the author.