On natives—we’re all alright


collinThere’s no more surefire way to get everybody all riled up on this site than to talk about native plants—whether or not to use them, how much to use them, who is too obsessed with them, who isn’t obsessed enough, where they work best, and where they work worst. I’ve read many an impassioned comment on these; too often, such comments are riddled with straw men arguments.

Is there a need? Aside from a very few fanatics—and in spite of Doug Tallamy’s arguments for natives, I do not consider him a fanatic in the least—most proponents of natives I know encourage their use. They do not enforce their use, nor can they. Unless certain plants—like ivy in the Pacific Northwest—are banned, or you live in some kind of HOA hell, you can pretty much plant what you want. Nobody is making you plant natives; nobody is making you plant anything.

But, in spite of all the hot air, I find so much satisfaction in my native plants. There’s the Collinsonia canadensis (at top), with its tiny but interesting blooms. Known commonly as horsebalm, this, like many of my natives, provides late summer interest and statuesque foliage. My Eupatorium varieties are starting to bloom now, as well, including the tangentially related blue mistflower.

amclemI’m very pleased by the Clematis virginiana (above), which doesn’t seem to suffer from wilt, like the Sweet Autumn variety, and climbs undaunted through trumpet vine (not a native everyone likes).

This is the time of year, when the lilies are ending and the roses just coming out of pause, that I appreciate natives the most. They’re not spectacular, flower-wise, for the most part, but they add lush foliage at a time when the garden is beginning to harden, and their aggressive tendencies help them survive in my shade- and root-laden urban wilderness.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I completely agree with you, Elizabeth. There’s room for both, as well as an appropriate place for both, in our gardens. What sets me off are the native adherents who are completely rigid about it – natives good, non-natives bad, no ifs, ands or buts about it. No gray areas. Natives or nothing. That doctrine, in my opinion, would make our gardens into pretty dull places to be.

    • Okay, except no one outside of your imagination takes such a hard line on native plants.

      That this is your response to post that explicitly says “most proponents of natives I know encourage their use. They do not enforce their use, nor can they” is more than a little revealing, I think.

      • WRONG Vincent- maybe where you live, but in other parts of the country natives are being foisted upon the gardening community. I can’t plant anything I want in a client’s Malibu garden, it has to go through a code process where my plant list is approved.
        I love planting natives, along with well adapted exotics. But the fact that many who advocate turning back time to a so-called pristine wild place want to take away my right to plant responsibly, well, it makes me angry! And just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
        BOTH natives and well adapted exotics have a place in our planting schemes – invasives, both native and non-native, do not. Super simple, I think.

        • Ivette, all I can say is that what you think you see is only in your own mind. And, apparently, your imagination is powerful.

          You write “that many who advocate turning back time to a so-called pristine wild place want to take away my right to plant responsibly, well, it makes me angry!” but nobody advocates that. Nobody.

          No one, for sure, except maybe some fringe cranks that everyone ignores anyway.

          Show me one verifiable comment by a native plant society (or representative thereof), published author, or ecologist – much less a government agency actually in a position to take away your “rights” – that comes anywhere close to advocating a rollback of time to a pristine past and I’ll change my tune.

          • Vincent, come on now… The term “native Nazi” didn’t come out of a kind warm place. There is overwhelming dialog on the part of nativists that insists that all of us that plant non-natives are Satan’s spawn. I hear it all the time. You hear it, everybody hears it.
            In this very forum I was accused of committing “ecocide” for advocating the planting of non-natives.
            The cranks, as is often the case, have taken over the conversation.

          • Perhaps Vincent lives in a place where the native plant movement is not so extreme. Or perhaps he is not on the receiving end of the abuse dished out by native plant advocates because he agrees with them.

            I have been trying to save our non-native urban forest from being being destroyed for over 15 years. I have been called a “creepy imbecile” because I defended our trees in a newspaper article. I have been called a “chemophobe” and an “anti-chemical crazy” in the on-line newsletter of a native plant advocate. I have been heckled in public hearings and chased down the hallway of city hall by a name-calling native plant advocate. I have had a rock thrown through the window of my car when I succeeded in getting an op-ed published in a neighborhood newspaper. I have received hate mail at my home.

            I am happy for Vincent that he has not experienced such abuse, but he is not in a position to deny the reality of my experience.

          • A couple of years ago the city of Seattle attempted to create a new “green code” that would have mandated 75% natives in any new or replaced landscape. It was so shockingly arbitrary (and so poorly written) that they were forced to withdraw it. Western Washington is a unique place–many natives are understory plants and others are enormous trees. The forest is a beautiful place, but expecting to recreate it to that extent amid streets and buildings was misguided.

  2. I am a proponent of natives…and adaptives…because, quite frankly, it is somewhat impractical to think that a garden or landscape (unless never touched) could be anything other than a mix. Have you ever tried to spec plants for a native only garden…it is really difficult. The availability is just not there. But if a plant has been proven to be hardy, water-wise, and noninvasive (an adaptive) then put those puppies in! As with all things…extremes are dangerous! My 2-cents! ~Julie

  3. Not to throw a wrench into the works, but apparently Christopher C of Outside Clyde has spent major energies trying to eradicate invasive and tenacious Clematic virginiana from his North Carolina garden. I hope you have less trouble with it in your colder region.

  4. I love natives although, like most of us, I’ve come late to the table, only after the Germans co-opted the best of them, gave them proper German names like Feuerverkerei and Flammenspiel, and sold them back to us at exorbitant prices whether in Dollars or in Deutsche Marks. I was already hooked back in my “Back to the Land” period in the seventies when, while cashing in my GI benefits before they expired, I enrolled in whatever class called to me from the slim Concord (WV) catalog, and embarked on a course in botanical nomenclature conducted from the back seat of a sixties era Chevy careening around the crookedest roads on the planet as fast as marginal insanity allowed. It’s said that the roads in West Virginia are so crooked that one regularly gets a good look at one’s own rear license plate, and it’s quite true. No, really. I must say that absorbing the details of the verges at 50 mph seemed a pretty effective way to separate the plant-addicted from the seekers of an easy “A”. Colt’s Foot and Indian Paintbrush seemed almost to scream for my attention. Once alit on the roadside, I needed to be dragged from ogling the Pinxter Flowers or snorting the heavenly scent of Trailing Arbutus. But it wasn’t until a trip to Thailand some years ago that it really sunk in that our natives have significant value beyond their niche in native habitats. To my amazement, I discovered that, in Thailand, one of the most common combinations sold as a temple offering was Mokara Orchids paired with Solidago. Seriously. In fact, the two most common obstacles to negotiating ones way around the Bangkok wholesale flower market were heaps of these orchids in the street and bales of Solidago leaning on the walls. That golden color, apparently, fills a need for the Buddhist faithful that nothing indigenous can, and huge quantities of it are sold in a country where purchasing flowers on a daily basis is commonplace, either for temple or for one’s family “spirit house’ wherein one’s ancestors dwell.
    So, in addition to striving daily to convert everyone in the United States to Buddhism, I now, as a key part of my cut flower business, grow seven different Solidago species which, serendipitously, bloom in perfect succession, and so far I have found florists not just receptive but enthusiastic about each of them. The first is a “canadensis” type that I’ve been too lazy to nail down botanically but has the typical tapered inflorescence that curves to one side. Next, S. rigida, which sells from its “broccoli” stage to full bloom and is clearly a favorite of my customers. That’s followed by S. sempervirens with its broader, shiny foliage (and recently declared unwelcome in Wisconsin by the DNR for committing the sin of successfully colonizing the median of an Interstate Highway (horrors). Next up I believe is S. speciosa, the “golden rod” for which goldenrod is named, a spikier form and very showy. And then there’s a selection/discovered variant/cool plant from Bluebird called Wichita Mountain. I assume it’s a variant of S. speciosa, but they’re not sayin’. Very rhythmic tufts on a spike and beautiful lime green foliage to boot. And last (until this year) has been S. rugosa, the species,and the cultivar “Fireworks”. “Until this year” because I’m not yet sure where my latest “Solidago” will bloom. First year from seed I have two phenotypes of what used to be S. graminifolia but has been reclassified as Euthamia graminifolia (damn those taxonomists!), one from a grower/friend on Block Island, Rhode Island, the other from a Midwestern source, Prairie Moon Nursery. Predictably, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic, with the Block Islander a thrifty, crisp and understated New England plant while the lanky Minnesotan is twice as tall, awkward, slightly disheveled, and would do well to tuck in its shirttails. I’m looking forward to meeting their flowers soon. And also looking forward to your thoughts about converting to Buddhism.

  5. I like native plants too and I encourage everyone to plant whatever they wish in their own gardens. My only objection to the native plant movement is their demand that non-native plants and trees be destroyed on our public lands because of the herbicides needed to accomplish that. Garden Ranters often respond to my objection that Garden Rant is interested only in private gardens. Of course, what people choose to do in their private gardens is not my business. However, Garden Ranters should take into consideration that the native plant movement is also intruding into private gardens.

    In California, the California Invasive Plant Council spends much of their time and energy trying to prohibit the sale of plants they consider invasive. There are over 200 plants on their “hit list” and it is a list that keeps growing. The designation of many of the plants on that list as “invasive” is debatable. For example, many of them aren’t literally invasive, but because they produce seeds and berries that are eaten by birds, they are considered potentially invasive. Others, even the invasive plant council acknowledges aren’t invasive, but they are on the list because they are believed to have an adverse impact on native plants. That opinion is both controversial and sometimes specious.

    In San Francisco, there is a more extreme version of nativism. There is now a citywide policy to include people’s backyards in an inventory of “natural areas” which has the potential to mandate both eradication of non-natives and preservation of natives. The promoters of that policy also applied for a grant that would have implemented that policy by inventorying all open space in the city—including people’s backyards—for designation as “natural areas” (AKA “native area”).

    So, though Garden Rant may wish to portray nativism as a benign form of gardening, GR would be wise to keep in mind that there are extreme forms of this ideology which are both destructive and dictatorial. If you are aware of these extreme versions, you will understand what people are reacting to.

    • Very thoughtful comment Mary, and I agree with it all. Except this: “what people choose to do in their private gardens is not my business.” My neighbor, whose lawn abuts my so-called lawn, uses a lawn service that sprays toxic herbicides to kill what she views as undesirable lawn weeds. (The same weeds that, btw, make up the totality of my lawn.) When her service is spraying that poison I can smell the chemicals for hours. So can my tomatoes and lettuce. Therefore, I take the position that what she does in her private garden does affect me. I was recently diagnosed with a type of leukemia (one that the VA says is caused by Agent Orange–a cocktail containing one of the same herbicides used on lawns) I feel even more strongly that what people do in their private gardens affects me. No one will ever know if my neighbor’s lawn chemicals caused my cancer. But in these early days of dealing with such a diagnosis, I’m inclined to blame those chemicals. What I should do is direct this (negative) energy towards getting a ban on lawn chemicals. What I won’t do is accuse my neighbor of giving me a premature death (I want to, but I won’t).

      • That is certainly a legitimate exception to my too general statement. I share your concern about the toxicity of pesticides. That’s why I am opposed to the pesticides being used in our public parks for the sole purpose of killing plants which some people do not like. The risks of these pesticides outweighs any theoretical benefit of using them in places called “natural areas.”

      • I am SO sorry about your diagnosis – and unfortunately, it is one of the illnesses we see with toxic exposure. Hopefully, one day, people will understand that poisons do not belong in our environment, because they are POISON. What someone does in their garden most certainly DOES affect the community at large, for the bad and, fortunately, for the good as well.
        I wish you much luck and a speedy recovery. My best thoughts are with you.

      • I said “Garden Ranters” referring to some of the comments that are posted in response to my observations about the eradication of non-native plants in public open space. I also said “often” as opposed to “always.”

        In the second reference to Garden Rant, I was referring to this specific article, which I don’t think I have misrepresented in that observation.

    • Mary, it seems you are equating the Invasive Plant Council and ‘the native movement.’ I’m not sure they are one and the same. Cal-IPC includes an excellent set of brochures entitled ‘Don’t Plant a Pest’ where they feature invasives commonly used in gardens and encourage planting better-behaved garden alternatives. The alternatives they recommend are a mix of climate appropriate plants and not exclusively or even primarily natives.

      Of course nobody appreciates extremists who impose unnecessary or ill-informed restrictions on others….However, too many gardeners in my view are compartmentalists, viewing our communities as a bunch of walled and unconnected fragments free from responsibility to the world outside their fences.

      Back in the 1970s when the EPA was created the greatest source of pollution to our waterways was ‘point source’ pollution, essentially industry. Now, all these years later, this has been reversed. The biggest source of pollution to our waterways is ‘non-point source’. You and me and our collective yards, roads, driveways, roof areas and sidewalks draining everything we think we’re containing out into our waterways. There are no ‘private gardens’. We live in one big interconnected garden.

      • I doubt that Cal-IPC would quibble with an association with the native plant movement. I am familiar with their brochure, “Don’t plant a pest.” It’s a very good example of my original comment. The tree featured on the front page of the printed version of the brochure is blue gum eucalyptus. Cal-IPC’s recently revised assessment of blue gum is that it has “low invasive potential” in specific conditions and that its population in California is stable. One reason why its population is stable is that it has not been available for sale in nurseries for decades. Cal-IPC also acknowledges this fact in its recently revised assessment of blue gum. Yet, despite acknowledging these facts, Cal-IPC proposes to maintain its classification of blue gum as “moderately invasive.”

        That classification is based on Cal-IPC’s belief that blue gum has a negative impact on native plants, hence its association with the native plant movement. The “evidence” that Cal-IPC provides for these impacts is not supported by scientific studies. These two articles provide examples of the lack of evidence: http://milliontrees.me/2014/07/21/tracking-down-the-truth-about-blue-gum-eucalyptus/ http://milliontrees.me/2014/07/26/birds-and-butterflies-in-the-eucalyptus-forest/

        As for your observations about pollution, perhaps I miss your point. You seem to agree that spraying our public open spaces with pesticides is not a good idea.

    • I agree. I am a native plant proponent, but I do not believe that means we should grow native plants and nothing else. Some people, though, really do believe this.

  6. Chris lives in North Carolina. I live in Buffalo. There are many plants that go crazy where he lives that wouldn’t survive the winter here. The clematis in question seems vigorous, but stays well with bounds, for me.

  7. Great post, Elizabeth!
    With one of the best native plant growers in North America practically on my doorstep (Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano) I have discovered so many beautiful, ornamental and underused native plants. My current favorite is Eriophyllum nevinii/Catalina Silverlace. (see it here> http://www.flowerpictures.net/flower_database/images/c/catalina-silverlace.jpg)
    I honestly don’t know why this one isn’t used extensively in Southern CA (but I’m glad it’s not – so don’t you all go and start planting them, ok?) It is simple to grow, has the most gentle and unusual color combination (goldenrod yellow flowers and blue/green luminous lacy foliage) and, since it’s a native and requires very little water here in CA (overwater kills it quickly), it will save the world to boot! It grows both in sun and part shade and unlike many natives does not need to have a wet-nurse at its side monitoring its vitals to establishment. It provides a lovely pop of foliage contrast with other plants, a service natives often don’t provide because they haven’t been hybridized for variegation, frilly foliage and novel flowers, except maybe for Ceanothus.

    Doug Tallamy has changed the way many of us think about the natives we put in our gardens, but take a look at this: http://www.npr.org/books/titles/336058453/welcome-to-subirdia-sharing-our-neighborhoods-with-wrens-robins-woodpeckers-and
    It turns out that far from our suburban communities being avian wastelands, our exurbs and suburbs host the richest diversity of birds precisely because we tend to mix and match our plants garden to garden and within our gardens. The patchwork quilt that is suburbia can be rich in plant diversity and therefore, it can host rich bird diversity, too.

    I think a bigger, much bigger, issue to focus on, is that we need a complete overhaul of they way the ‘average’ homeowning population thinks about ‘pests’. We need regular people (not gardening fanatics like us) and so-called ‘professional gardeners’ to understand the basic principles of IPM (know your ‘pest’ before you panic) and to understand the basic principles of the food chains above the ground and below the ground (the soil food web) before trying to determine what to do about a ‘pest’.

    It’s great that the neonic issue is getting press in the NY Times and other mainstream media. I was interested to note this survey published in a landscape contracting trade magazine. I wonder who the companies are, labeled ‘registrants,’ who commissioned this survey intended to influence policymakers on the regulation of neonic pesticides: http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/19541

  8. Thanks for this post Elizabeth! To me, a good plant is a good plant – native, non-native, whatever. If it is drought tolerant, if it feeds wildlife, if it isn’t invasive, and it looks great – GIMME! I just wish I didn’t have to plant from approve lists, and that my planting plans didn’t have to get approved by local codes that enforce the use of native plants only in the Chaparral of Southern California. Very limiting. BUT – a beautiful garden can still be had – I’m no quitter!

  9. Pam’s comment about her neighbor’s pesticides and her personal health is one that many of us can relate to. You may have read on Garden Rant last year about the ban in Takoma Park on private and public property. After much education of the City Council, the bill passed 7-0 in favor. Now, the same activists (myself included) are pushing hard for a similar bill in Montgomery County. See our website to sign our petition: http://www.safegrowmontgomery.com or .org.

    I always illustrate a point with Albrecht Durer’s 16th Century painting, Large Piece of Turf. Google it right now! Plantains and Dandelions are here to stay–so what a nightmare that we are giving each other cancer and asthma and more, in hopes for a perfect lawn. Maybe hoping for a perfect life, while extinguishing life. Great article, and great comments.

  10. I agree about limiting the use of toxic chemicals for home use. Its unsettling to be standing in line at Home Depot and peer into other peoples baskets and see the arsenal of horror that people can simply purchase and then misuse at home. We thought guns need control… this stuff is on every big box shelf.
    But that’s an utterly different conversation than the one about native plants. My irises aren’t killing anybody.
    What happens in someone else’s back yard is their own business EXCEPT, fireworks, nudity, gun fire, pig slaughter, chop shop, nuclear misile construction, spying, loud music after midnight, fracking, burying bodies, etc. We don’t really get to do ANYTHING we want in our own backyards do we?

  11. This article reminds me fondly of the discussion of natives versus invasive plants at the new York Restoration Project. A reminder that one person’s weed is another’s flower. Much beauty to appreciate and its all subjective.

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