Defending Nonnatives in the NY Times


Did ya see "Mother Nature's Melting Pot" in today's New York Times?  The author's apparently not a fan of the nativist philosophy.


  1. Amen. I share his perspective–the nativist view has been far too simplistic and in some cases, downright misguided. I’m glad to finally hear some balance brought to this debate.

  2. Yet another misguided, ill-informed, and simplistic attack on the use of native plants. I wasn’t surprised to see this editorial championed on Garden Rant.

    I am somewhat intrigued that this blog contradicts its alleged founding principles (listed in the green box at the top right of every page) so wantonly.

  3. Uh, Vincent, do you mean the Manifesto at the top left of the page? And if so, in what way does the blog contradict those principles?

  4. I don’t know if this matters to anyone else reading this blog, but now that the NY Times is limiting non-subscribing readers to no more than 20 articles per month (and articles read through blog links are included in that count), some of us may be unable to read the linked articles, or will have to think twice about what we read from there….just sayin’.

  5. The aricle is correct in the stayement that many plants brought here from other continents are of benefit to humans. As a generalist species with the ability to adapt our surroundings to our needs we have propagated the earth to its near limits.Because some are born in different country that does not make us different species.
    Other quite necessary species have not been so luckly. I grow native species plants to provide food and shelter to those species.

  6. Could Susan or Claire or anyone explain what the “nativist view” is or tell me someone who espouses it, or refer me to a manifesto? Who are these awful people restoring degraded environments to pristine ecosystems? I hear the same accusations over and over again but without facts. They’re never made against a specific article, person, or program. To me they feel like contrarian attempts to create controversy for controversy’s sake.

    You’re tilting at ghosts or straw zealots.

  7. Chris, generally I think these disagreements are with the notion that only native plants should be used – also known as the native “purist” point of view. Have you really never seen an example of it?

  8. I felt the author of this article (an anthropologist and recently-naturalized citizen) spent too much time equating human immigration with plant immigration. But he used a lot of good examples of invasive, “immigrant” plants and their positive impacts (as well as a few “bad” invasives). Oddly, I read his examples with the “invasion” of America by Europeans centuries ago in mind, which gave his words a certain twist. “Invaders” are not necessarily the same thing as “immigrants”.

    I wish more “nativists” would share with us specifics for how and why a native plant species should be planted and encouraged to grow. For example, I’m sure monarch butterflies have been migrating up and down the west coast of the Americas for centuries, even before the eucalyptus groves they now seem to favor were introduced; what were the native plants they favored before then? I would be all in favor of planting a native species over an introduced species, if the native were critical to another animal or insect species’ survival, for example.

  9. No where in the NYT article does it say native plants are bad or inferior and do not plant native plants. It is only saying the non native plant issue is not so cut and dry. There are benefits and drawbacks to the whole issue as it actually exists in reality due to human and plant mobility.

    Let’s do a little thought experiment. Take your typical suburban yard post construction. What is left on the site plant wise after the house is built? Very little. Maybe a lawn and maybe a few shrubs, if the owner is lucky there might be some trees. The plant diversity is pathetic.

    Now a gardener comes along and starts planting. They are not native only purists, but plant about 40-50% natives. Are there more native pants on the site than previously? Is the plant, animal and insect diversity in better shape now than before? Can native animals and insects make some use of the non-native plants? Yes, yes and yes.

    The way to encourage the use of more native plants is to promote their landscape and wildlife value. Ragging on non-native plants is futile. The genie is out of the bottle and nature is running the show, not us.

  10. This issue is certainly nothing to get pissy over. It’s not like anyone is going to do any good trying to fix it after the fact non-natives have been introduced.

    There are a lot of cool native plants that get overlooked. I think it might be because most gardeners are comfortable with whatever they’re used to planting and don’t want to spend a lot of money experimenting.

    Native plants are part of our cultural legacy – that’s a reason enough to grow them! I hope they become commercially developed to a greater extent than they are now. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower center website has great info on native plants. You can browse by bloom color, bloom season, water requirements, etc. I miss being able to visit them in Texas!

  11. Susan, I understand what you’re saying, I just am not familiar with anyone who seriously maintains that we should only plant native plants. And so don’t understand the necessity for “preemptive” disputation.

    And I acknowledge that many areas are lost in the sense that they will never be reclaimed or restored to their original condition. It’s a waste of resources to try. I do think though, that the gardening community ought to support the concept of preserving ecosystems. If we don’t do it, who will? If it gets to the point where governmental regulations seriously restrict our plant choices I’ll be shoulder to shoulder with you all opposing that but right now I personally find the loss of diversity in the world the more disturbing situation.

  12. There are other reasons to use native species besides to help create “original” environments or to preserve an ecosystem. Native species tend to have developed disease resistance and soil tolerance in a given area. Therefore it is likely that a native ornamental grass, for example, would need less fertilizer (if any) and not need to be watered much because it has adapted to the local weather patterns, soil and diseases. Of course this only works if global warming hasn’t messed up the weather and/or invasive species haven’t spread a disease the natives aren’t used too, but you get my drift. Most of the time native species are a bit easier to work with.

    When does an immigrant species become “native”, say for example melons were brought to the “New World” by Europeans, who got them from China via the Mid-East? Yet what is more American than watermelon in the summer?

  13. I second Chris’ question — just what is the nativist’s view?

    And if you are a conservationist who wants to preserve some of America’s historical plants, does that make you a nativist? What if you want to preserve 18th century architecture, say instead of tearing it down to build an office park — are you a nativist then?

    I also agree with Heidi that they are part of our cultural legacy and American identity and it would be a shame if they were completely lost. Not to mention, the species that rely on specific native plants may be lost as well.

    I’m getting the feeling that Garden Rant has a real issue with people who like to support native plants. Is there some incident or story behind this that you guys would care to share?

    I for one have really never met one of these purists, although I suppose they are out there.

    Anne — Monarchs lay eggs on Asclepias and sip nectar from them. There are many different kinds, in every lower 48 states, I believe. Plant them in full sun, they like room. They should be at your local garden center in the summer.

  14. To equate those who promote native plants with racist, anti-immigrant “nativists” (which this article does in the very first paragraph)takes some kind of nerve. Jens Jenssen, a pioneering 20th century landscape designer, faced the same kind of accusation…Because he promoted a native plant palette that evoked the midwestern prairie, he was more or less accused of being a Nazi…check this out:

    Because the Nazis actually did extend their prejudice to plants and eschewed non-native plants in their landscapes, apparently anybody who still espouses the native landscaping is still at risk of being tagged anti-immigrant and racist.


  15. I know this is off topic – but did there used to be a blog roll down the left column?
    Back on topic – I think native plants are a lot more fun…more wildlife, more sense of place, more obscure plants you would have never found otherwise.

  16. Maybe the only truth in this article is that the problems with invasive species in North America (or anywhere else) are irreversible. Yet I tire of people anthropomorphising the plants and flipping the topic to anti-immigration fanatics. This kind of talk reminds me of Republican political tactics; the way they skew a socioeconomic issue towards some religious-cultural one in order to pick up support and redirect people’s frustration.

    I do not know one person who believes that invasive plants are a problem who also happens to spew anti-immigrant hate. In fact, those I know tend to be hyper-conscientious. So this old saw, first offered by Michael Pollan, is really weak. Sensitive people get it -there are language parallels between anti-immigration and anti-invasive. So what? You are either saying people who support dealing with invasive plants are anti-immigrant or you’re saying we’re not. Enough of the ‘just sayin.’

    We should never confuse human culture or ethnicity with differentiated species. When human beings emigrate to the United States, do they not live amongst human beings? Is the author suggesting that different cultures and ethnicities have different eco-systems? When we deal with alien species of plants, we are talking about a plant within a community of hundreds or thousands or more of species in a single biological system. Please do not insult me so much -you think I am so limited that I cannot see ethnic diversity as a plurality of cultures, not a plurality of species which have very specific inter-relations with eachother. Yes, cultures may have specific inter-relations with eachother, but in the end we all eat, we all sleep, we all screw.

    And, yes, I too know of no one who requires natives only, with the possible exception of government roadside or trailside contracts. And while we celebrate the nation of immigrants from which most of us descend, let us consider whether those folks, who speak of the strength and virtue of said “immigrant” plants, also feel superior to those who were less successful when they found themselves up against our manifest destiny of industry and guile.

    Stop shucking responsibility by throwing around epithets.

  17. If maintaining balance in our local ecosystems means cutting back non-native, invasive species, then this immigrant is up for it! (I don’t equate human immigrants with foreign species that settle here.)

  18. Over the past few weeks, Garden Rant bloggers have missed no opportunity to attack the use of native plants by gardeners, to attack the value of native plants, and to attack those advocating for the increased use of native plants.

    I think these attacks are inconsistent with the Garden Rant manifesto, and Anne and Susan asked why I think so. I respond by providing a serious of rhetorical questions:

    Who more than native plant gardeners are convinced that gardening matters?

    Who more than native plant gardeners are bored with perfect magazine gardens?

    Who more than native plant gardeners are are in love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens?

    Who more than native plant gardeners are suspicious of “the horticultural industry”?

    You get my drift.

    The use of native plants flows from the premise that gardening matters in many ways, not just aesthetically. Reducing the consumption of petroleum, reducing the waste of water, increasing the ability of our (dare I use the word) “landscapes” to support a robust and healthy ecosystem: those things MATTER at least as much to people who use native plants as to any other group of gardeners I can imagine.

    And while not all native plant gardeners embrace the ethos of the “real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens” mentioned in the manifesto, we are as a group much more likely to “let the leaves fall where they may” than non-native gardeners. Or to tolerate the appearance of (friendly) “volunteers”.

    In other words, nothing about the native plant “movement” is inconsistent at all with the Garden Rant manifesto. If the Garden Rant bloggers were serious about their manifesto, I argue, they would be embracing the native plant crowd instead of alienating them.

    I’m not demanding that you “convert” to the “cause”. Except in the abstract, for example, I don’t much care what Susan or Amy or Michelle plant in their gardens. If they can’t find any native plants they are passionate about then, well, I won’t hold it against them.

    But to keep insisting that there is something WRONG with being passionate about native plants seems just a bit bizarre and, as long as that manifesto sits up top of the page, just a bit hypocritical.

  19. I grow only one native plant in my vegetable/herb gardens–Allium canadense. But I’m an active member of the Florida Native Plant Society and purchase only native trees and shrubs for the landscape, but there are plenty of remaining non-native woody plants.

    Sometimes bugs do adapt to non-natives with avengence: Case in point the polka-dotted wasp moths. See the bottom of this article:

  20. There are thousands of people who garden only with native plants, including me. I have an exraordinariiy beautiful and bountiful garden that was featured in the Summer 2010 Better Homes and Gardens Special Publication Nature’s Garden. I make my living as a Landscape Designer who works only with Midwestern native plants, published a book call Design Your Natural Midwest Garden, available at Amazon, have a website and blog devoted to gardening with native plants and give power point presentations to Garden Clubs and other organizations about Native Plant Gardens.
    There is an organization called Wild Ones, Native Plants, Natural Landscaping with 50 Chapters throughout the country, mostly in the Midwest, New chapters are formed every year.
    Jens Jensen is our hero, although he worked mostly with savanna and woodland trees and shrubs on the North Shore. Read his charming book, Siftings, originally published in 1939.
    Read, or at least skim, Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Dr. Gerould Wilhelm. (I can match our PhD’s with yours any day.

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why you continually demonize us.

    Quite frankly, we’re the future.

    Pat Hill

  21. Vincent, thanks for saying more and I’m so glad you did because I completely agree with your point – that native-plant gardeners are a great and growing cadre of environmentally conscious gardeners, and natural partners to people like me who take a different approach on one or more details of how we garden or recommend that others garden. All of my gardener friends are eco-minded and I bet 95-100% of them use and encourage the use of natives, as do I. (I include as many as possible on the lists I recommend to my clients.)

    It’s really all about disagreeing agreeably, and if I’ve ever written something disrespectful about native plant advocates, I’m really sorry because I think that hurts the cause and makes for unnecessary contentiousness. (Like Michael Pollan making the Nazi comparison – that’s rude and insulting.)

    What I DO try to do is pass along links to possibly unpopular or upsetting opinions on hot topics (if by credible people on credible sources), because that’s kinda our mission here. We express or pass along contrary opinions about a whole range of topics that people feel passionately about – for or against compost tea, for example.
    But if/when we lapse into disrespectful name-calling or other divisive language, go ahead and call us on the carpet.

    And this is probably something we need to say more often – – that we GardenRanters don’t necessarily agree with anything we link to or that our guest bloggers write. Or, for that matter, what our Rant partners say. We take no votes.

    Hope that helps, and I hope you keep on commenting. Your voice is valued here.

    And to answer Kathy’s off-topic question, yes we removed the long blogroll that was horribly out of date (lots of dead links). We’re undergoing redesign and there will be more changes coming soon.

  22. Now I am another word today? A nativist…? Oh gee whiz…

    I use both and promote the use of natives to the “plant & ploppers” that buy junk at Home Dept and kill plants every year.

    Natives rock!

    Nah, the NYT is not a reliable source for news, especially on this subject.

  23. The writer was comparing apples and oranges. It was scientifically lacking and just emotional dribble from a new citizen enjoying our melting pot. The author may be an anthropologist, but certainly isn’t a biologist or botanist, and it showed.

  24. I can not speak for anyone else but as a native plant propagandist…lol…I welcome the occasional foray into native plants at Garden Rant. While we may not change anyones mind I have found some wonderful gardens and gardeners through the comments, many of them quite articulate when stepping up for native biodiversity in gardening. That is a good thing.

  25. I’m going to try and tell a big complicated story as quickly as possible because it helped me form my personal opinion on non-native life forms, in this case animals.

    I was lucky enough to have friends that lived for years in the Caribbean. Often when I went to visit they would be participating in nature based activities that assisted someone conducting some form of research. One time the acitivity was to climb high up onto the ridges of the mountains to help set up nets to collect insects. I don’t remember who was doing the research. I do remember that the insects were alive and being blown all the way across the Atlantic by powerful storms from Northern Africa. When I remarked that I had no idea that African Locusts could survive a tumbling flight over that much water my friend pointed to the flocks of Cattle Egrets which were also waiting for bugs in the wind and said “they took the same route to get here”.

    So I learned that every alien species did not end up here because of sloppy humans, sometimes mother nature sends them. It just seems to me that the whole world is an ever shifting garden and we’re the only creature freaking out over boundaries.

  26. Frank’s comments up above are right on. This is a good conversation here. I’m so steamed right now I might go buy some native plants–if any nurseries around here carried them! I blogged about it, and not trying to say “hey looky at me,” but the argument for me is that not looking closer at native plants is akin to saying genocide is ok–of plants, of animals, of people, of cultures. Destroying the tallgrass prairie was an act of murder from the sense of an ecosystem AND of many plains indian tribes. We deny what we do, we forget, and we don’t learn, because we are Americans with manifest destiny, seeking simplistic hegemony (monocultures like corn) when it never existed (melting pot my rear end).

  27. I appreciate garden rant as a forum for our passion. That NY Times piece was drivel and I wish they allowed comments on that page.

    As always, my garden is native, non-native, and one responsibly deadheaded invasive.

  28. This morning I was reading the lastest couple of entries to a blog I follow. Both pertained to this discussion. How you say?
    Well in an area where native plants are successfully growing there will more likely be sufficient food sources for the native insects. The varying weather patterns will effect the emergence of both flora and fauna.
    Check it out and see if you don’t agree.

  29. I grow about 70% natives in my garden. I think they’re awesome and cool, I think they’re underused, I think some of them are far better for wildlife than anything you’ll buy at Home Depot, and I’d really rather people didn’t plant invasive things that I’ll be ripping out of my yard for the next ten years…but geez, sometimes it seems like every single time I see natives mentioned, especially here at Garden Rant, it’s in the context of “Oh, those native plant purists! This article’ll make ’em angry!”

    Seriously? I don’t know WHO these purists are, I’ve never met one, and while I believe you if you say that there are really people out there slapping the azaleas from your hands, the fact is, when you keep posting articles slamming on native plant gardeners, it mostly just makes ME feel unwelcome. Would the occasional indication from the blog that people who think natives are nifty aren’t all crazy zealots attacking your petunias in the night really be that hard?

    Would it help if I sent in photos of my catmint and pomegranates to prove that I’m not one of these “purists”?

  30. As and anthropologist, this guy seems to have a poor understanding of biology and ecology. I have lost some respect for both garden rant and NY times on this one.

    Our treatment of the land combined with the introduction of new species has led to massive changes in our ecosystems. Many of these changes have been very bad for our plants and wildlife.

    A lot of the examples he provides in this article are really terrible. Crayfish for example, are decimating the aquatic ecosystems in southern california. they eat our native amphibians.

    honey bees do provide services, but so do the native bees, and we have hundreds of species of them. Native bees do not suffer from CCD.

    Ice plant destroys diverse coastal communities and actually does a very poor job of preventing erosion. It also creates monocultures, where no other plant species live.

    Many of the plants and animals he describes that we demonize are invasive because they produce monocultures in the wild. This is true of Eucalyptus in parts of California. Monocultures, like your front lawn for example, can be like deserts for wildlife. In addition, they reduce plant diversity. As a gardener and biologist I love plant diversity! I love new plants from all over the world. I do not, however think it is ok to plant or introduce things that will destroy biodiversity in my ecosystem. which is why I will eradicate iceplant, fountaingrass and eucalyptus, and support native bees by planting a diverse assortment of native and nonnative plants.

  31. Hm, the NYT author’s comparison of human racism and hate to native gardening is off.

    Maybe a better comparison would be the killing and displacement of native Americans by invasive exotic European explorers and colonists (we need to distinguish the invasive exotics from the merely exotics)? And attempts at societal reparation with ecological restoration?

    Yikes, that is just as bad–or possibly worse–simile. Either comparison is based on faulty logic.

    I am a hybrid cross between immigrant and U.S. citizens… yet I admit to loving native plants more… Time to bring in Freud?

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