Question of the Week: Do the Natives Make You Restless?
So where do you come down on the issue of native versus exotic plants?
Seems to me there are three camps one can belong to. The first argues for gardening exclusively with natives. The second says that it makes sense to include natives in the garden, but it would be a mistake to exclude all the wonderful exotic plants that are available. And the third argues that it is irrelevant, if not downright pernicious, to consider the geographic origin of plants.
I belong to the second camp.
In my amateur view, there are two convincing reasons to make a point of including natives. First, they give gardens a distinctive regional feel. Second, I buy into Douglas Tallamy’s argument that natives do the best job of supporting an insect population that the birds and other critters depend upon.
There are also some unconvincing arguments. Some say natives are uniquely adapted to local conditions and so require a minimum of watering, etc. Here in the Midwest, it’s true that there are many natives that are carefree plants, and I love just about all of them. But it’s also true that there are exotic plants that are carefree, and that some natives need considerable coddling to make it in the home landscape.
I also think for most people gardening is an expression of creativity, and it is just too confining to use natives exclusively. I don’t want to go without tulips. daylilies, ‘Casa Blanca’ oriental lilies, peonies, etc.
I was reminded of this argument the other day at my Modern Garden History class. We learned about Jens Jensen, a pioneer of the movement for naturalistic gardens with a strong preference for native plants. Jensen, a Dane by birth who emigrated to the US after being forced in the Kaiser’s army, had a strong dislike of regimentation (he hated straight lines). For him, naturalistic gardens were expressions of democracy, connecting people to the landscape and to each other.
Ironically, the native plant idea was also seized upon by Willy Lange and other German fascists who strangely based an approach to plants in their philosophy of racial superiority. Michael Pollan and others have used this history to attack native plant advocates, an attack I find to be offensive and absurd. (What conclusions should we draw from the fact that the Nazis promoted organic gardening and professed to love nature, plus Hitler was a vegetarian?) Any idea in the realm of politics, religion, or anything else can be twisted until it becomes grotesque and hateful.
My attitude towards those who advocate landscapes made up exclusively of natives is a lot like my attitude toward vegetarians. I think it is a good thing to plant more natives, just as I think most of us could stand to eat more vegetables. However, I am not willing to give up my lamb chops. I view those who voluntarily give up lamb chops with respect, as long as they keep their promotional efforts educational and not coercive.
So, which camp do you belong to? Do you believe in natives only, an eclectic approach, or would you insist we remain blind to issues of botanical origin? And are there exotic plants you just can’t live without?