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.
Fascinating! It is good to read these deep, open minded discussions. I love my daffodils and refuse to feel any guilt about them!
Thanks for introducing some common sense into the rush to judgement about non-native plants, and for making the oft-forgotten point that “non-native” and “invasive” are not the same thing. Incorporating native plants into a garden is a fine idea, but a vocal few have become fanatics about it, and make many claims not supported by science. Large areas of my own garden are carpeted by hellebores and alien corydalis species and are aswarm with both honeybees and native bees each spring. Yet some would have us believe that pollinators reject these plants because they are not natives.
Bill, it’s great that you are providing nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. However, the larvae of butterflies, moths, etc. are plant specific in their food choices and have co-evolved with the native plant species in their eco regions. And those baby bugs are a huge part of the diet of baby birds. This is actually the better reason to have a yard rich in native perennials, grasses, and sedges. This message has definitely gotten lost in the overall discussion of natives and non-natives and is backed up by much scientific evidence. By all means keep those beautiful hellebores and Corydalis, but don’t forget the baby food!
Astrid, Certainly the role of larval host plants is important but it’s not a case of either/or. You can easily have various plant species organized to provide different roles at different times within the same landscape. Also, larval host plants are not just native species – there are introduced plant species that can fulfill the same role, usually associated by plant family – for example Apiaceae with swallowtail butterfly larvae. One more thing… we need to start thinking of garden ecologies beyond fixating on the role of pollinators and bird food, nature itself is infinitely more complex.
I am not sure how you got the idea that I was advocating for a natives only approach from my comment. I am not. I was simply pointing out that the issue of pollinators and pollination is very, very often the central theme of these discussions and leaves off the issue of larval host plants. I think this can even be understood by reading the comments regarding this post, and the post itself. I have a perennial plant nursery and I propagate and sell both native and non native plants. I call my non-native offerings “nice visitors from away”, which they are. And although there are opportunities for some introduced species to fulfill the baby-food-role as you describe in your response to my comment, the operative word is some. Daffs are wonderful. I plant more in my Maine garden all the time amongst my native plants and shrubs and all my other nice visitors from away. I agree with you 100% that pollinators, and larval insects, and baby birds are part of a glorious and complicated web. I have found that my customers become very engaged by larvae once they “see” them as babies and they delight in providing them food. The next connection is that this supports bird populations. This is just another way into a more nuanced conversation. Before that, it stops at pollinators and this us versus them mentality regarding both bugs and native plant advocates. Not particularly useful. And thank you so much for your beautiful garden and how you share that labor of love through various on line channels. It is an inspiration!
Did you know that daffodils, originally native to the Mediterranean region, have become naturalized in many parts of the world? In fact, they have adapted to a range of environments, including gardens, fields, and even mountains.
One species (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is native as far north as England & Wales.
Most daffodils people have planted are hybrids between that and Narcissus hispanica, though loads of different hybrids exist between many species.
Even in England where Narcissus pseudonarcissus is native it is greatly outnumbered by mass plantings of the cultivated hybrids. It’s not too problematic though because the hybrids are usually barren and don’t seed.
As for the Mediterranean – it’s the centre of diversity for most flora found in Europe – it’s where it all waited out the last ice age.
Other bulbs like bluebells and snowdrops have their highest amount of species there too, with one or two reaching Northern Europe (like Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which unlike daffodils – will spread).
A speaker at one of my earliest conferences said she changed the clay soil in her SC Piedmont by planting daffodils. I tried it, and it worked for me. I am now a natives only in terms of purchasing and acquiring new plants and have been for 20+ years, but I am only trying to eliminate the non-natives that are on my state’s invasive list. Too old to start over.
Like most everyone else I treasure daffodils because they’re almost always the first flowers to bloom, and they persist with no care whatsoever. It’s good to see that, as usual regarding nature, there are many ways to consider what is best. Thanks for reporting on this issue, Susan.
Gardening dogma like any dogma discourages thinking ( and perhaps good observation as well!). I have very mixed gardens: some natives, some not. I keep honeybees, have numerous mason bee “houses”, feed birds in winter, have some bare areas for native bees,and so forth. Bees, especially bumblebees definitely come to the daffodil flowers as well as chionodoxa among other spring flowers. Many of the native spring flowers (such as Virginia bluebells which I absolutely love) have a short period of bloom,a disadvantage for pollinators. With climate change occurring at a rapid rate planting only “natives” may be problematic in some areas. i think that human beings seem to have a need to put things in categories …it makes thinking easier. The actual world is not so simple.
Can anyone tell me the timeline between something being “native” and “non-native? . Native as of when? Native as of when the dinosaurs roamed, or when Colombus or Leif Erikson landed or the turn of the 19th century or even the 20th century? How about native as of last Wednesday? So even if you arbitrarily pick a date where everything growing in a region is considered native, I suspect that when you add in houses and asphalt roads and heat sinks like concrete parking lots, office buildings and so on, the environment changes and might possibly not be supportive of a “native” plant.
Native plant advocates define “native” as the plants and animals that lived in a particular place prior to the arrival of Europeans. On the East Coast, that’s over 400 years ago. On the West Coast, that’s prior to 1769 when Spanish explorers arrived in California. The problem with that definition is that it does not take into account that Indigenous people lived in North American some 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Their culture altered the land to provide food and shelter. Their use of fire significantly altered the landscape by preventing the natural succession of grassland to shrubs and climax forest. Climate change is making the definition of “native” progressively more problematic. The native ranges of plants and animals have changed and must continue to change if species are to survive in changed conditions.
Hooray for diversity. In our restoration of the back half of our acre which is wetland and riparian woods here in the Pacific Northwest, we have dug out pulled out and cut out invasive ivy, Himalayan blackberries, and canary grass. As a result, native plants are finally getting the nutrients and light they need and they are flourishing. The blackberries beyond our property line continue to support wildlife as a food source and habitat. So all is well with the world. And now I know my selfish need for the daffodils we added along with natives are doing their part. Hooray!
Susan, thanks for this wonderful rant! I love the complex, contextualized approach you take. Things are never as simple as we like to make them. (Just think “no-mow April”, another very short-sighted perspective…) Your article is so full of good arguments that I had to read it twice. Great to know all this background, can’t wait to use it next time in a discussion of native versus non-native plants.
I am a gardener on 10 acres in SE Michigan who has been making a big effort for years to rid my property of invasives. That said, I also have a perennial beds with many non-native plants and other beds with lots of natives. As for this sentence, “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.”, that is hyperbole. The judicious use of herbicide against invasives is not poisoning the earth. My property has shown an incredible increase in native plants coming back from the seed bank after the invasives are not taking over their space. Getting rid of buckthorn and autumn olive and Oriental bittersweet and white mulberry have allowed sun and space for native trees and forbs to return.
sorry using chemicals that are cancer-causing and banned in many european nations is not a good thing, period and is not justifiable as promoting the ultimate triumph of smugly superior “natives.” I have removed a huge amount of wintercreeper and bush honeysuckle in my yard and guess what thrives there in the dry clay shady soil? nothing whatsoever. The fact is that the ecology is not the same as it was in some glorious pre-European fantasy and it cannot be restored to clean water, clean air etc etc. No I am not a fan of invasives but those zealots who are on a tear to try to kill all non-native plants using toxic chemicals are deluded. Thanks for the great discussion based on common sense.
I always enjoy reading Susan Harris. Just want to say that. This was great. I follow the science too and I am totally on board to plant native but I believe doing as little harm as we can is also at issue. And pesticides ain’t it folks. The GREAT Rachel Carson would indeed be sad to hear of all the “oh just kill your plants with pesticides to create a grass and perennial meadow” folks. Nope. I love you Roy Diblik, but nope. I don’t even want my husband to use them on our driveway weeds. It’s just not ok. Thank you to Susan Harris for my new book and YouTube rabbit hole of Mary C. Or whatever her name was. I must look this up.
Thanks for your kind words but you’re NOT gonna like my response above re: herbicides. I look for scientific evidence that’s relevant to whatever use is under discussion, coz not all uses are the same. Universities promote Integrated Pest Management, which seeks to find the least harmful solution to every problem. No black/white answers.
These theories remind me a lot of the book The Rambunctious Garden. I highly recommend it as food fir thought in the natives vs invasive battles.
Not so daffy… I look to the indigenous wisdom of botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ who writes about her love of daffodils, amongst other things. Her biggest extravagance in her garden is in her words, “Magnificent, special daffodil bulbs. I adore all the colours and shapes that daffodils come in. I order 100 every fall.” Kimmerer has a whole different concept of plants, where they come from and where they belong.
That’s all to say, if she can love daffodils, so can you and I. For that matter, so can Phyto Studio and Claudia West who plant Narcissus in droves as part of the ecological strategy in their cutting-edge designed landscapes.
Feral daffodils look like graffiti? Wow, that’s a new take on an old favorite. I’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t love them!
Daffodils fine, but Marlene Condon loses me at Japanese Knotweed.
I’d like to know if Marlene Condon has actual data or research to support such a blanket statement as this, “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 statements like this that the reader needs to be careful about. Anyone can say anything to support their opinion, and call it fact, when it may or may not be fact. It’s hard to know in this blog since any reference to a research study to support the statement was not included.
That being said, being one of the evil native lovers and supporters, I do have a yard full of daffodils and other nonnative plants such as daylilies, and I love them all. Most of my yard is made up of a diverse collection of both native and non-native species. But I would never, knowingly, advocate or encourage the planting or sustaining the use of non-native invasive species that crowd native species out.
What Astrid said above is true. Biomes are complicated, and we don’t know just how much each species, both flora and fauna, depend on each other. By not only allowing, but encouraging invasive species (think kudzu, for instance) to overtake an area is irresponsible. And there are other means of removing invasive species besides using pesticides.
Excellent post! As always, for complicated problems the simple answers are seldom the best, Here is an issue we’ll never fully understand, so let’s just accept that the way forward is to be open to better science and a more nuanced conversation. The more didactic we are, the more we stunt our learning.
So… Someone with no qualifications in this field, makes unqualified claims based on their opinions? Not quite the argument you think it is.
We’re finding more and more that invasive plants do not adequately fulfill the same niche as native plants. They don’t hold the soil as deeply, they change the soil microbes, they put out allelopathic chemicals and create monocultures, they don’t have the right nutrients or ability to collect as food or shelter, they out complete and kill off natives and the species that depend on them to survive. Including us, as we’re seeing with pollution in our water, and banks eroded.
Obviously, they’re also not qualified to be opining on chemistry either. There’s many herbicides, “poison” is Naturalistic Fallacy rhetoric when people don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s high to low acute toxicity, and short to long half life.
Not to mention, what a colonist take.