Natives here, natives there, natives, natives everywhere…

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Is there any garden center that doesn’t carry coneflower?

Now and again, someone asks me where they can buy native plants. Sometimes they go on to complain that native plants are hard to find in today’s nursery industry. My hackles rise, and I know at that moment that they have no real knowledge of plants, yet have simply heard this somewhere and felt it worth repeating. It’s just another example of industry bashing without investigating the facts. In fact, in a chat with plant guru and renowned nurseryman Bill Barnes just the other day, he said that he personally surveyed the industry and that three of every four plants in the landscape industry were native or derived from natives.

Many selections of the native smooth hydrangea are available.

 

 

I know I can walk into any local garden center and find a large number of natives. Are these peevish people unaware that the ubiquitous blackeyed
Susans and coneflowers are native? That’s just for starters. You may choose to speed read the next two paragraphs to match how quickly my fingers typed the many native plants that are commonly found in our region’s  local garden centers. Please don’t be vexed that I am choosing not to use binomial nomenclature for the sake of brevity.

Southern magnolia is a staple offering in southern states.

Specifics are important, as there are often native and non-native species of the plants that I have chosen to list by the most broadly accepted common names in this region. I am also not going to get into the controversy over cultivars of natives at this time, but will on a later date.
I’m certain I can find both smooth and oakleaf hydrangea, ninebark, sweetshrub, inkberry, fothergilla, clethra, sweetspire, beautyberry, blueberry, serviceberry, winterberry and deciduous holly, yaupon holly, rhododendron, native azalea, bayberry, redbud, dogwoods, southern and sweetbay magnolia, bald cypress, red and sugar maple, tulip poplar, several species of native oak, river birch, Carolina jessamine, coral honeysuckle, beebalm, several phlox, butterfly weed, blanketflower, Joe-pye weed, yucca, panicums, coreopsis, perennial hibiscus, yarrow and mealy cup sage. Pant, pant…
Somewhat less common, but often found in the better garden centers include buttonbush, sumac, bottlebrush and red buckeye, witch-hazel, pawpaw, hornbeam, anisetree, poplarleaf leucothoe, chokeberry, baptisia, spigelia, obedient plant, asters, tiarella, muhly grass, crested iris, autumn sage, amsonia, snakeroot , columbine, liatris, cardinal flower, bigleaf magnolia, blackgum, asters and…you get it, so I’ll stop.

This was a long route to point out that the folks that say native plants are hard to find, wouldn’t know a native if they were standing on it. I shouldn’t be surprised in this era, when It’s no longer important to inform yourself on topics before passing judgement. Silly me, to think folks might research a topic before forming an opinion. but then, look all around us at today’s America, where sorting truth from spin has fallen from fashion.

Wrenching the wheel back from that political veer, here is my complaint about native plants. Some of the easiest to grow and most useful native plants have not made their way into mainstream markets. I’m faced with my own ineptitude when I look at a couple of decades of trying to convince growers to grow these, retailers to carry them, and consumers to ask for them. It’s a chicken or the egg sort of dilemma.

Lemony blooms of spicebush light up this wild slough in late winter.

What’s not to want about a late winter blooming shrub/small tree that will grow in sun or shade, isn’t picky about soil, has golden fall color, can provide red berries for wildlife or for your own culinary use, and produces wonderfully fragrant foliage that provides food the caterpillars of beautiful butterflies? Who wouldn’t want that? Yet spicebush is largely absent in the trade. When I’ve been able to find it, the plants are seed grown, and there is no way to know the gender on the young specimens. I’d like to have several females and a male for pollinating, maybe one more male as a backup stud. Instead, the seller tells me to buy several, and hope there will be at least one of each gender in the lot. I don’t like this suggestion, but I summon a smiling response, since I’m told by those that have tried that our native spicebush is not easy to root from cuttings. Tissue culture could be an option, but since there is so little demand, there has been little interest.
Another pet native is devil’s walking stick, Aralia spinosa. This glorious plant is billowing into clouds of creamy blooms alongside most country roads in late summer in west Tennessee, but the foliage alone is exquisite. Each enormous leaf flutters with intricate bi- to tri-pinnately compound leaves that can span up to five feet in width, the largest of any temperate tree on the continent.
Many pollinators are attracted to the beach ball sized panicles of small ivory flowers, but these blooms seem to be especially prized by the larger swallowtails. The dark purple berries are relished by birds, and by that time the stems of the infructescence has turned a brilliant deep pink that will remain on the plant for weeks.

Clouds of flowers, lush layered foliage, why let a few thorns discourage its use?

Sure, its suckering nature is a drawback to some, so if you don’t have the space to let it colonize, remove those as they appear. I’ve seen individual stems get to 30 feet, and add strong vertical drama to the vignette. Other drawbacks? I’ve seen the “are you crazy?” look on people’s faces when they realize I mean the plant with the rings of wicked thorns on the trunks. These are people who have just shown me pictures of their yards, crowded with landscape roses or barberries. Hypocrites.

A few die-hard native plant nurseries carry it. Trees by Touliatos was the only mainstream nursery I knew that did, and that fabulous destination garden center is now erased from the planet.

Plato, I miss you every day, but you are always riding along with me every time I pass a stunning colony of devil’s walking stick on a country road. You were always ahead of the curve…

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

27 COMMENTS

  1. Carol, thank you, thank you! You reminded me of two things: Aralia spinosa (devil’s walking stick) and the great nurseryman Plato Touliataos. I’ve gotta get my mitts on a devil’s walking stick. I’m lusting after it big time after reading your wonderful description. And Plato… I was so in awe of him in the early days of the Cullohwee Native Plant Conference and I am so, so sorry I never got to his Memphis nursery.

    • Yes, I would, it’s called garden rant. As a woman, surely you tire of being expected to be sweet. This is where we vent a bit, and hope folks get that, and enjoy a little bit of tart for balance…thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    • Yes, but vinegar is quite attractive to many people, if not flies. As a Carolina boy, the ONLY barbeque sauce worth eating is made with vinegar and even my toddlers were more apt to eat certain foods like collards, beets and cucumbers when doused with vinegar. That tang makes the sweet even sweeter.
      I like a good rant and I think Carol’s points were well made.

      • Thanks Perry! I do love a vnigaar based bbq sauce myself. Family recipe was mostly vinegar, lemon and butter, spices, and a little chili sauce, not ketchup!

    • Please see reply to Kathy Kling. Plus, I didn’t trash another person’s lack of knowledge, ma’am. I trashed people who make authoritative, judgmental statements without first verifying the facts. Big difference

  2. I respectfully disagree with you.

    IF you live in a big city such as Austin, TX where I used to live, native plants are a snap to find. I never ran into an issue finding the natives I wanted. Try moving to a small town and you’ll change your tune.

    Every native plant I’ve planted, I’ve either grown from seed, ordered online, or traveled to a university’s plant sale two hours away to purchase. When you orders plants online, they become pretty pricey because of the shipping.

    Our local “garden center” is only open from late February through June and most local people prefer to plant annuals so the owner sells tons of them. Sadly, around here yaupon hollies are considered a weed.

    I’ve grown coneflowers (three varieties), Joe pyeweed, and lead plant all from seed. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to name the online nurseries I’ve purchased from…but I have sweetspire, baptisia, a native hydrangea vine, smoke trees, goldenrod, butterfly weed, and others thanks to these nurseries.

    Summary (I’m in a rush. Got be somewhere in 15 min.): For city folk, natives are a breeze to acquire. For the rest of us, we work hard to find them.

    • Lawdie me, if you think I live in a big city, please come see for yourself. I can get to Nashville or to Memphis in a couple of hours and do on occasion for shopping forays, but the plants I listed can be found most all the time at the two garden centers within a 20 minute drive of my office in Jackson. Of course I am not counting the big box stores in the area as true “garden centers” but of course even there, I commonly see offered smooth and oakleaf hydrangea, ninebark, sweetshrub, sweetspire, beautyberry, blueberry, serviceberry, rhododendron, native azalea, redbud, dogwood, southern magnolia, bald cypress, red and sugar maple, several species of native oak, river birch, Carolina jessamine, coral honeysuckle, beebalm, several phlox, butterfly weed, blanketflower, Joe-pye weed, yucca, panicums, coreopsis, muhly grass, crested iris, autumn sage, perennial hibiscus, yarrow and mealy cup sage..and in fact, recently picked up (I’m sorry, I do buy mostly local!) some beautiful native Juncus and bluestem, on the sale rack no less. I’m sorry your one nursery doesn’t carry much, but I sympathize. I have to travel to get good ethnic food and as for other quasi-exotic needs for interesting home cooking, I order online.

  3. I very much enjoy your articles! Our MDC offers bareroot spicebush seedlings each year and you’ve convinced me to get off the fence and get some this year. It’ll have to brave the deer…and, now that I see that the ninebark seedlings planted in March are holding up pretty well under the pressure (they leave the fragrant sumac, witch hazel and indigo bush alone), I have hope.

  4. True.But gardeners are being told that cultivars don’t count as natives.I heard a native plant landscape designer tell our garden club that a plant not grown from seed produced in our own county is not native….

    • Another good topic for a rant, isn’t it? Why make it so hard for people? There is truth to that statement, yet if a migrating bird were to drop that plant’s seed in a distant state and it prospered, would that be “wrong”? I don’t see how people can see things so black and white, when there are so many shades of gray…

  5. I think nurseries need to do a better job of advertising/labelling natives, but also informing people about their use of pesticides and neonics. I don’t buy natives from regular nurseries, other than one I know to have taken the safe seed pledge. Neonics can persist for years, and I fear introducing that into my garden. The other factor for me is provenance. Buying a locally grown native plant is good for not only genetic diversity, but also adaptability of the plant to my local conditions. Living in Ontario means that buying a purple coneflower from seed grown and produced from a big producer somewhere in the U.S. could result in the plant may not being well suited to its growing environment at my home. Finally, I love supporting smaller and more local growers. The big money nurseries really don’t need (or deserve) my business. But yes, some plants are there at nurseries if people know to look for them. Judging by what people generally plant, I don’t think natives represent a big portion of what is sold.

    • I agree with you regarding the purchase of “natives” that aren’t actually natives. I learned from a former forester that a live oak from California isn’t the same as a live oak from Texas and may not grow well here. (Heck, even a human being who relocates from Washington state to Texas may not adapt well here because of the heat.) I’m not sure if plant sellers know this matters.

      I am in the process of becoming a Master Gardener and attended a meeting to discuss plant ordering for next year’s fundraiser. The dogwoods that will be ordered for the sale aren’t from Texas. They come from another state. Will they do well here? I don’t know. Are the coneflowers I grew from seed actually native to my area? I hope so, but am not absolutely certain, but I do know the bird-planted eared goldenrod and the wild aster I took a cutting from are native, and they are thriving in our drought.

    • You make several good points, Laura. I might want to point out that seeds can be spread out of the immediate area by migrating birds or some such, and that those that prosper in the new site are part of nature’s evolutionary plan. As the earth warms (sadly) they might even do better in a different setting. Nature’s one constant is change. Living things adapt or they don’t. I rather like that she is really in charge, and we only like to think we are…

  6. Our local Soil & Water Conservation District has an annual sale of native perennial shrubs and trees cultivated in a local nursery, and the prices can’t be beat (a buck or 2 for bare root trees!). I think they started doing this to encourage good watershed/land stewardship in our rural, agricultural area. I bet there are organizations like this in many places around the country that could be helpful in sourcing out obscure but useful and beautiful natives.

  7. “Native” by itself really doesn’t mean much; it only gains significance when accompanied by “to” — that is, the specific eco-regions and habitats where a plant grows wild. If a big part of the point of growing natives is to support the local food web, then the backbone plants of the garden need to be native to the region where it’s located *and* suitable to the site conditions on offer.

    Because of the immense size and variety of climates in this country, “native to the U.S.” isn’t a useful characterization. “Native to Virginia” isn’t much more helpful, because my state has three very distinct regions: mountains, piedmont, and coastal. The distribution maps at the plants.USDA.gov site are an excellent way to learn where particular plants will thrive (and be of value to local fauna). For my garden, the Vaplantatlas.org site (online version of the Flora of Virginia) is even more valuable.

    Many plants that I grow and enjoy, that I thought of as “native plants” when I acquired them, aren’t native to my area at all: Itea virginica, Fothergilla, oakleaf hydrangea, Calycanthus, and… coneflowers. Many others are. Almost all the plants in this garden — locally native, native to the eastern woodland or southeast but not locally native, and (well-adapted, non-invasive) exotics — came from nursery sources.

    Over the last 25 years, plants native to parts of North America have gotten more plentiful in the trade. But only in the last decade have tools like the USDA site and local floras become widely available, and books like Doug Tallamy’s that help gardeners make realistic assessments about what the plants in their gardens are actually offering to local fauna.

    • You make some good points, however, I am always curious how we really know what is native to our region, as it has likely so many times even in the last several thousand years, not to mention aeons. We know from fossil record that some of the plants considered “Asian” were once here, so is bringing them back harmful? Is the only correct plant palette the one that was made when people began to take notice, which is probably in only the last century or two? Is it wrong when a bird spreads a plant from your specific eco-region or local habitat to another and it prospers in that new environ? That seems it could be a beneficial adaptation especially as our climate changes. I also find that the sites that identify native range of flora while helpful, are not entirely accurate. I have found many plants on my 100 acres of rural property that are not noted as present in Henderson county. They are there, it is just that they have not been reported. Some plants are so site specific that you have to know exactly where to look for them to find them. Examples are winterberry holly and sweetspire, that are both easily found in my area IF you are willing to go look for them in the swamp. I’ve never seen either outside of sites that stay wet year round, or virtually year round. Yet, taken from the swamp, they thrive in dryer soil. Does that mean I should not use them in my garden? Some would say so, but I can see you are more relaxed with your approach.
      I will also use some of that thinking to contest Doug Tallamy’s assertions that plants must be native to be of use to wildlife. Some “exotic” plants are so closely related that even the specialist insects make full use of them. Broken down into chemical compounds they are virtually identical.

  8. I don’t think the Devil’s Walking Stick is native to my part of Canada, but I think I’d prefer it to that other non-native that was introduced here a few centuries ago (and is REALLY hard to get rid of) to act as hedgerows – Buckthorn. At least with Aralia spinosa you get showy flowers along with the thorns!

  9. I appreciate your article. I also appreciate that you told it like you feel it! We don’t need to be sweet all the time, for crying out loud!! I feel blessed to be 45 minutes away from the Wild Type Native Plant Nursery in Mason, Michigan (near Lansing). All of their plants are locally sourced (from seeds they collect) except a very few such as purple coneflower which has been extirpated in Michigan.

  10. The notion and predisposition towards “natives natives and natives” is very similar to societal fads like “locally grown produce” or “gluten free” or you get my gist. Myths not based on facts.
    I like how you nailed this topic down, not to bash native specimens but to highlight the fact that native plants are everywhere, and to also point out several native plants that are indeed rare finds. Thanks for the informative article and I’ll start looking around for rare native california plants!

  11. It’s been 12 years since this blog began as a refuge from bland, uncritical garden writing and we regularly get comments urging us to be like all the other blogs. I say we resist the urge! Susan

  12. Carol, I agree with your rant wholeheartedly and appreciate your tell it like it is style. I was fortunate to hear you speak years ago at the Perennial Symposium at ABG.

    As for being sweet-
    Many years ago when my children were small, their grandmother told me a story about watching them one afternoon. The girls were bickering and she admonished them to “be sweet”. My younger daughter looked up at her and said “I can’t! I was made salty!”

    My salty girl is now off to college. World, you’ve been warned!

  13. personally i could stand with a bit more rant. these are issues to care about. the natives that i am looking for are the ones i remember from my childhood some 60 years ago. and now are called invasive or weeds or both. living in the willamette valley in oregon i am surrounded by the most vile invasive weed of them all, ryegrass! i have to weed the containers in the yard every week, what for all the grass growing in them. i grow invasives: perennial sunflowers, mints, iris, rhodies that are invasive 50 miles from here, butterfly bushes, because they are all that can push back ryegrass. And much more rant, unsaid!

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