Readers of the Washington Post, including me, have followed Dana Milbank’s thoughtful, left-leaning political commentary for years. So what a surprise to read a recent column chastising himself – and really all of us – for growing nonnative plants. The title is “I’m no genius about genuses, but your garden is killing the Earth.” Not subtle – or based in science. 

I was disheartened to read this anti-gardening screed, but I decided not to rebut his claims, as it would take far too much research for this psychology major to do the job well.

Happily, I discovered people who know more than I do had responded, including in this blog post, which I got permission to republish, in part. The know-more-than-me responders are:

Carol Reese, retired Extension Horticulture Specialist who conducted her 27-year career from the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson, where a large and diverse display garden gave her the opportunity to observe biodiversity in action on an enormous range of plant species from other parts of the world. She’s a former GardenRant regular contributor, and a popular speaker on myriad subjects. (She also responded directly to Milbank but didn’t hear back from him.)

Mary McAllister, author of the Conservation Sense and Nonsense blog, has studied invasion biology and the native plant movement it spawned for 25+ years. She writes that she’s watched forests of healthy, non-native trees in California be destroyed and replaced by weedy grassland and advocated for a less destructive approach to restoration (a word she’s reluctant to use to describe projects that use herbicides to eradicate harmless plants and trees.)

Mary summarizes the responses:

  • Insects are not dependent on native plants.  They are just as likely to use related non-native plants in the same genus or even plant family with similar chemical properties and nutritional value. 
  • While some non-native plants have potential to be harmful, many are beneficial. There are pros and cons to both native and non-native plants and that judgment varies from one animal species to another, including humans. For example, we don’t like mosquitoes, but they are important food for bats and birds.  
  • All plants, whether native or non-native, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and store carbon. Destroying them contributes to greenhouse gases causing climate change.
  • When the climate changes, vegetation must also change.  Many non-native plants are better adapted to current climate and environmental conditions in disturbed ecosystems.

The Column Begins:

Milbank:  I did almost everything wrong.

ReeseI’m so sorry you thought this!

Milbank:  Recounts happily growing roses, azaleas, viburnum, magnolia, nandina, and lawn for 20 years, with a “symphony of color” performing in his yard. “But this year, the bloom is off the rose. And the hydrangea. And the rhododendron. And all the rest. It turns out I’ve been filling my yard with a mix of ecological junk food and horticultural terrorists.”

McAllister:  Milbank’s lengthy list of “bad” plants in his garden paints with too broad a brush.  For example, instead of identifying a particular species of hydrangea and rhododendron, Milbank condemns an entire genus.  Both hydrangea and rhododendron genera have several native species within the genus.  Most (all?) species of phlox are also native to North America.

Milbank:  “When it comes to the world’s biodiversity crisis… I am part of the problem. I’m sorry to say that if you have a typical urban or suburban landscape, your lawn and garden are also dooming the Earth.”

Reese:  YIKES! This is pretty extreme, and dare I say inaccurate? No, home gardeners are part of the solution, no matter the plants in their garden. Doom will come from lack of diverse green space. Doom will come from climate warming as a result, as well as from pollution, tillage, factory farming and development.

Milbank:  Explains that he’s been enrolled in the Virginia Master Naturalist program. “I discovered that all the backbreaking work I’ve done in my yard over the years has produced virtually nothing of ecological value — and some things that do actual harm. A few of the shrubs I planted were invasive and known to escape into the wild. They crowd out native plants and threaten the entire ecosystem. Our local insects, which evolved to eat native plants, starve because they can’t eat the invasive plants or don’t recognize the invaders as food.”

Reese:  It sounds so logical, but is sooo inaccurate. Ask any entomologist that has spent their careers “fighting pests” on valued crop or ornamental plants. Remember Pangea when all continents were fused into one? More recently, have you thought about the exchange of plants and animals across Berengia when we were still connected to Asia? We can trace those relationships/kinships of our plants to Asian/Eurasian plants now through DNA. They eventually differentiated into species (a continuum of change caused by climate and geologic pressures until we humans declare it as a different species, though biologically it is still basically the same nutritional makeup.)

Anise swallowtail on non-native fennel. Courtesy “Papilio zelicaon, the anise swallowtail, typically has one to two generations in the mountains and foothills of California where it feeds on native apiaceous hosts. However, along the coast, in the San Francisco Bay Area and the urbanized south coastal plains and in the Central Valley, P. zelicaon feeds on introduced sweet fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, and produces four to six or more generations each year… the use of exotics has greatly extended the range of P. zelicaon in lowland California.” SD Graves and A Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation, 2003


Milbank:  “This in turn threatens our birds, amphibians, reptiles, rodents and others all the way up the food chain. Incredibly, nurseries still sell these nasties — without so much as a warning label.”

Reese:  As I read, I also watch the many birds on my lawn, the fence lizards on my decks, the insects humming among the flowers in my diverse collection of native cultivars and introduced plants. 

Hummingbird in eucalyptus flower. Eucalyptus blooms from November to May. It is one of the few sources of nectar and pollen for birds and bees during the winter months when little else is blooming. Courtesy Melanie Hoffman

Eucalyptus leaf litter makes excellent camouflage for this garter snake. Courtesy Urban Wildness

Milbank:  “Most of my other plants, including my beloved lawn, are ecological junk food.”

Reese:  Now, now! Many (most) natives do not supply useful forage either. All plants supply some benefit. They provide shelter, create, improve and anchor soil, cleanse air and water, make oxygen and cool the planet. The plant must be judged on benefits versus detriments in each situation. If a nonnative plant is the only thing that will flourish in bombed out rubble, or contaminated soil, if it is providing many benefits, shall we rip it out because caterpillars won’t eat it? If we let it get established, will it ready the site for other species with more benefits to become established? Shall we get out of the way and let nature do what she does, which is heal herself?

Milbank:  Asserts that cultivated varieties of native plants aren’t doing harm, “but neither are they doing anything to arrest the spiral toward mass extinction.”

Reese:  Please know that the most influential native plant botanical garden in the country (Mt. Cuba Center)  has trialed the cultivars of native plants for their ecological benefits and found as should be expected, that each cultivar must be judged on its own merits. Some are better than the straight native as in the coneflowers where ‘Fragrant Angel’ scored tops for pollinators and many others were very close to being as good as straight species. These cultivars were even better than the other species of Echinacea tested. BTW, I grow E. purpurea, pallida, paradoxa, tennesseensis and laevigata as well as many cultivars. Remember that cultivars should also be judged on not just nutritional value, but other factors that increase benefits, such as length of bloom period, numbers of blooms, drought resistance, heat tolerance, hardiness, ease of production (cost) and durability. Please ask to speak to Sam Hoadley there as he leads the research on beneficial cultivars and has completed and undertaken several studies of different native species. Great guy and great speaker. 

Please be aware that many cultivars originated as naturally occurring deviations in seedling populations, and as we know this actually diversifies the genetic pool, allowing Mother Nature to select the better form. We sometimes agree with her, and other times we may move along that diversifying form by crossing it with others that are demonstrating genetic variance. Logically, this actually furthers the cause of a broader genetic pool that can help in today’s crisis in showing which can cope and flourish.

Milbank:  Invited a native-plant nursery owner who had lectured to the Master Naturalist class to assess the plants in his garden. Day lilies? “I would remove them all. Those have also become badly invasive.” Creeping jenny on a slope: “Another nasty invasive.” Was told that natural areas “have really been torn up by” Rose of Sharon and Summer Snowflake viburnum. Worst of all? The nandinas. “You definitely want to remove it,” he advised. Its cyanide-laced berries poison birds.”

McAllister:  Here in California, most berry-producing, non-native plants are considered “invasive” based on the assumption that birds eat the berries and spread the plants.  Nandina was briefly on the list of invasive plants in California until knowledgeable people informed the California Invasive Plant Council that birds don’t eat the toxic berries.  Nandina was removed from the invasive plant inventory long ago.

I also have personal experience with nandina and cedar waxwings.  Flocks of waxwings visited my holly trees in San Francisco every year.  They did not touch my three nandina plants.

Bumblebee on Cotoneaster, Albany, CA. Cotoneaster is one of many berry-producing non-native plants on the list of invasive plants in California. Himalayan blackberries are another target for eradication in California. They are frequently sprayed with herbicide in public parks where children and other park visitors eat the blackberries.


California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is an example of a native tree that is toxic.  Its flowers are toxic to honeybees and its big brown seeds for which it is named were used by Indigenous people to stun fish to make them easier to catch.  The bark, leaves, and fruits contain neurotoxic glycoside aesculin.  Every negative characteristic attributed to some non-native plant species is equally true of some native plant species.  No one mentions buckeye’s toxic characteristics because it’s a beautiful native tree.  Photo Sacramento Tree Foundation

McAllister:  Virginia is one of only four states in which rose of Sharon is considered invasive. Rose of Sharon is not considered invasive in California. This is a reminder that the behavior of plants varies because of the wide range of climate and environmental conditions.  Nearly one third of the plants on California’s list of invasive plants are not considered invasive in California.  They are on the list because they are considered invasive in Hawaii, a state with a warmer, wetter climate than California.  In naming rose of Sharon as a dangerous invasive, a media resource with a national readership has made a generalization that red-lines more plants than necessary.  They become targets for eradication with herbicide and they deprive us of the biodiversity that is particularly important in a changing climate in which biodiversity ensures resiliency.

Milbank:  “Lawns, and those useless, ubiquitous cultivars of trees, shrubs and perennials sold by the major garden centers, are squelching the genetic variety nature needs to adapt to climate change.”

Reese:  It’s actually the opposite. We need more plants in the mix. We need “the tumult of nature” to decide. We aren’t the jury, and we continue to interfere with our well-intended assumptions that we know best.

Lawns are full of wildlife when management is minimal. Mow. That’s all. Mow judiciously when “lawn weeds” are blooming. Watch birds feed on the many insects in the lawn including lepidopteran larvae. Realize that many moths pupate underground. Think of your lawn as haven for them and for the grubs birds relish as millions of acres across our country are being tilled for factory farms. Remember that the best habitat is mixed. Open areas bordered by wooded areas and most species love the borders. Our suburban landscapes are ideal if we just stop killing things.

This is a lawn that serves pollinators. Homestead Stencil Company

Milbank: Removed the invasives  and “I also took a small step in the painful task of killing my beloved lawn. I used landscape fabric to smother about 400 square feet of turf. In its place, I planted a smattering of canopy trees (two white and two northern red oaks), understory trees (ironwood, eastern redbud), shrubs (wild hydrangea, black haw viburnum) and various perennials and grasses (Virginia wild rye, blue-stemmed goldenrod, American alumroot, woodrush, spreading sedge).”

“My 38 plants cost $439 but these natives, adapted to our soil and conditions, don’t require fertilizer, soil amendments or, eventually, much watering. Over time, I’ll save money on mulch and mowing.”

Reese:  This one is so oft repeated and so very wrong. It depends on the plant, and it depends on the site. Plants in the wild require no input to succeed whether native or not because we have not messed up the soil and we have let the natural cycles of plant debris/decay improve the soil as it was meant to, creating a live, moist, interaction of microorganisms that work symbiotically to support the plant, which, btw has also been selected by nature for that site. It has absolutely nothing to do with origins. In fact, why would nonnative plants become “invasive” if they did not adapt as well or better than the native plants? I want to snort with laughter!

Milbank:  “Right now, my seedlings look pretty sad. Where once there were healthy lawn and vibrant shrubs, there is now mud and scrawny sprigs poking from the ground every few feet. I put up chicken wire to keep the kids (and me) from trampling them. The carcasses of my invasive plants lie in a heap on the gravel.”

McAllister: This description of Milbank’s ravaged garden is consistent with my 25 years of observing native plant “restorations” on public land.  They all begin with destruction, usually accomplished with herbicides.  The first stage of these projects is often described as “scorched earth.”  Years later, there is rarely habitat comparable to what was destroyed.  Colored flags usually outnumber plants. 

This is what a native plant garden on Sunset Blvd in San Francisco looked like after two years of effort: more colored flags than plants. The sign claims it is “pollinator habitat.” Since when do pollinators eat flags?

Milbank:  “But in a couple of seasons, if all goes well, my yard will be full of pollinators, birds and other visitors in need of an urban oasis. Years from now, those tender oak seedlings, now 6-inch twigs, will stretch as high as 100 feet, feeding and sheltering generations of wild animals struggling to survive climate change and habitat loss.”

McAllister:  Destroying harmless vegetation contributes to climate change by releasing carbon stored in the living vegetation and reducing the capacity to sequester more carbon.  Above-ground carbon storage is proportional to the biomass of the living vegetation.  Destroying large, mature plants and trees releases more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the young plants and trees can sequester.  Meanwhile, the climate continues to change and the native plants that Milbank prefers are less and less likely to be adapted to conditions.  Native plant ideology is a form of climate-change denial.  

A small forest of non-native trees was destroyed in a San Francisco park to create a native plant garden. Nine months later, this is what the project looked like: a tree graveyard.Conservation Sense and Nonsense:  

McAllister: I feel bad for Dana Milbank.  He has been successfully guilt-tripped into believing he has damaged the environment.  He hasn’t, but destroying his harmless garden WILL damage the environment.  I hope he will find his way back to a less gloomy outlook on nature, which will outlast us all in the end.  Altered perhaps, but always knowing best what it takes to survive.  The way back from the cliff he is standing on is through a study of evolutionary change through deep time to appreciate the dynamic resilience of nature, which may or may not include humans in the distant future.  I say “Embrace the change because change will enable survival.”

Milbank followed his “Your Garden is Killing the Earth” column, I guess ironically on purpose, with “How I Learned to Love Toxic Chemicals.” and McAllister had a ready response.

Mary has some reading suggestions “for those standing on the steep cliff created by nativism in the natural world.”