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. 

My front walkway bed combines natives and exotics.

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.

Native wild indigo, a great plant.

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.

Peony ‘America’, an exotic and also a great plant.

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.

My lamb chops.

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?

9 Comments on “Question of the Week: Do the Natives Make You Restless?

  1. I have watched bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds visit some exotics, then leave, apparently attracted by the color but finding the blossoms lacking. So while I have both, I am leaning more toward the natives, although some of them are quite pestiferous in their habits.

  2. A common flipside of plants being carefree is that they spread like crazy. I like to let them battle it out for dominance. Of course, that will squeeze out some of the more retiring but desirable plants.

  3. Regarding the Nazis favoring organic gardening, they say even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I wouldn’t disavow a good idea just because some pretty abhorrent people also saw its merits.

    As for natives, I’m in camp #2 with you. If I’m considering two equally desirable plants, I’d probably choose the native option. But some of the best performers in my garden – crape myrtle trees, for instance – are not natives. But the bees seem to love their blossoms and they’ve toughed out this awful drought and heat where natives like Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire) expired in a hot minute.

    And then of course there’s the whole question (similar to the immigration debate in the U.S., I guess) as to when a plant should be considered a native. Most plants migrate as climates change. Is a plant native if it has been in an area for hundreds of years? (Say if it was introduced by early European colonists to North America) or does it need to have put down roots thousands of years ago?

    The only irresponsible behavior, in my view, is planting something exotic with an invasive reputation that has the potential to disrupt established ecosystems. It’s possible of course that such disruptions might ultimately be beneficial, but without knowing all the repercussions, it seems foolish to plant what could become the next kudzu.

    • You’re right, the line between native and exotic is a fuzzy one, made fuzzier by climate change. I guess I would argue in North American that plants predating European settlement would be native. However, climate change will be pushing us to give a higher priority to plants that are best adapted to current conditions, and less to geographic origin.

  4. Oh, man. This is SO in my wheelhouse! Having 98% of my acre and a quarter legally restricted to Native Plants Only, I can tell you that those who think that Everyone Should Only Plant Native Plants can probably plant whatever they want, and CHOOSE natives only. Anecdotally, I can tell you that in the 2% of my yard wherer I can have whatever I choose, the hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other insects hover around the non-native ornamentals and only make rather cursory visits to the Native Only portions of my property.

    From a ‘science’ standpoint, most studies which “prove” how greatly native birds, animals, and insects favor natives are done on native-only parcels of land–protected greenbelts, parks, preserves and the like–and the comparison data is from non-native-only parcels. There is little, if any, study given to how native fauna respond to areas where native and non-native flora coexist. Where I live, the land-use regulations are promulgated by selectively ignoring any ‘science’ that does not support politically-driven ecological objective, anyway. I have written, and will write, extensively about this on my blog–and this is yours, and not mine, I know–but so much of this “debate” is driven by bias and expedience, and very little is derived from objectivity.

    There is an enormous difference between ‘exotic’ and non-native plants and Invasive and Harmful Plants, though, and fortunately there is a great deal of information about what constitutes a harmful invasive, and most areas have a Noxious Plant board of some sort or another. These plants should be avoided entirely. If only we could get nurseries to stop selling them.

    Having lived with these restrictions for almost two years, the other significant downside to native plants is that, at least in my region, they are extremely expensive compared to standard nursery stock, and the interesting ones can be very hard to find. THAT is truly a hardship, when those are the only plants you are allowed to have. Cheers, and thank you for a great question!

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m sure I would find the restrictions you face to be very frustrating. Living in a different region of the country and in an inner ring suburb of a large city, my experience has been very different.

    Regarding your statement about research on natives and wildlife. The researcher I’m most familiar with, Douglas Talamy, has looked at areas containing native and non-native, but only regarding insects. He argues that insects are far more critical to the food web for birds and other wildlife than berries. (And it’s clear that birds do like the berries of invasive plants – that’s one reason why they are so invasive!)

    Here’s a link on Talamy:

  6. Great post, and such a quality comment line. Thank you and your readers.

    I’m in camp two with you. And as I read through the comments, I’m reminded that most of what we eat is generally not native to the region in which we live, casting a whole different plant realm and comment thread into the question of which is more desirable.

    One of the permaculture gurus, Bill Mollefson(sp?) perhaps, once answered the question of native versus non by advocating we simply plant food.

  7. Count me as another gardener in camp two. There are many exotic plants that are garden favorites and that I can’t imagine banishing from my garden — peonies, daylilies, hostas, and lilacs, for example. I have been convinced by Doug Tallamy’s argument to increase the proportion of native plants in my garden (although the local fauna that they are attractive to include deer). I also make a distinction between benign exotics and invasive exotics and try to keep the invasives out.

    • Yes, there is that downside to the “wildlife-friendly” thing. Not just deer (thank god we don’t have them in my community) but skunks, and enough rabbits to make a person forget how cute they are.

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