Natives are hot, but am I hot for natives? Or just confused?


On the opposite side of the trend equation from paved garden rooms, prognosticators continue to urge the installation of more native plants (in addition to maintaining organic methods) for better resistance and ease of cultivation. We’ve been hearing about natives for a few years now. Western New York has at least one nursery that specializes exclusively in native wildflowers: Canadaway Wildflowers. Some of the lush photography (by Richard Clifton) from their website is featured above. There is also Wildflower Farm, which, though located in Ontario, takes mailorder and has a Buffalo warehouse.

I’m getting all local on you here because that’s what native plants are supposed to be about. Or so I thought. Canadaway offers plants from the eastern deciduous woodland floristic region, bordered by the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, the Gulf coastal plains and the Atlantic coastal plains. Wow. That’s one big geographic area.

The website clarifies further: “For our purposes, we refer to the plants that have existed in our floristic region since the time before European settlement.” And that’s one helluva long time ago.

Seriously. I love the information offered by this site and others on native wildflowers, and I love the beautiful shots of the flowers in woodland habitats even more. But when it comes to the urban domestic territory bounded by the sidewalk to the east, the garage to the west and the neighbor’s windows to the north and south, I have to wonder if I have any eastern deciduous floristic soil left. Will the recommended plants compete in soil that’s been altered by decades of previous cultivation? Will they fit into a courtyard garden environment? Will they play nice with my commonplace exotics originating from Mexico, Asia, Greece, and other faraway lands?

I’ll be damned if I know, but I can see easing into the native game with the following (shown above):
Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot)
Stlophylum diphyllum (wood poppy)
Cimifugia racemosa (black cohosh)
Actaea rubra (red baneberry)

The thing is that—as I read native in this context—they are no longer native plants. If I may take an analogy from literary theory, the plants have been divorced from their original source of meaning (the vast eastern deciduous floristic region, which, for the most part, no longer exists) and are now subject to a shifting set of meanings: their interpretation in the contemporary garden depends on each individual garden and the fleeting and mutable set of circumstances that surrounds each garden.

This is not to say that these plants do not remain relevant in contemporary context—it’s just that the term “native” becomes increasingly problematic. I say yes to the plants, within reason. I am more hesitant to say yes to native plants as a philosophy of gardening.

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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 regular 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


  1. After a freeze that killed some of my favorite (and largest) plants, not to mention my own rising level of alarm over this bee situation, I’m going to meet with our local native plant guy in a few weeks and see what he’s got that will work in my space. I’ll report back.

  2. Good grief, even plants don’t hold themselves to such rules.And realize that Europeans were not the first humans to interfere with species distribution.

    Plants do migrate. With climate change, through seed dispersal, even with human aid.
    Genetic diversity helps keep plants changing, evolving to either aclimate or migrate.

    Many species exist sometimes overlapping, as conditions go to extremes distribution of certain species may become limited, others expand.
    Gardens change gene progression in gardens, to adapt to the garden.

    Natives have a reputation of being fragile, picky, unable to adapt.Some are. But this is not so of most. Humans have purposely eradicated many natives as weeds in preference to the food and flowers they were accustomed to before settling in North America.Some of those plants have never fared well. but the ones that did had few of the pests of their native areas to contend with and some have exploded in growth. Long term pests and climate will catch up without our human intervention.
    Take a look at the range distribution maps of just these two plants. Camassia bulbs and Sunflowers.
    Camassia scilloides (Raf.) Cory
    Atlantic camas
    Camassia leichtlinii ssp
    Camassia Lindl.

    Camassia angusta (Engelm. & Gray) Blank.
    prairie camas

    Original to the western United States,
    then cultivated as a source of food
    by native Americans and likely introduced
    to Illinois (and other areas)
    prior to European settlement.

    Helianthus annuus

  3. “Shifting set[s] of meaning”? Good grief. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. Or, rather, if it doesn’t come with an internally consistent logical schemata, do not engage. The native plant movement (if I may call it that) has many layers. You can take what you want. You don’t have to buy in to a whole program.

    In California, we’ve been hearing about natives in the garden for much longer than just a few years. There are several good books on the topic and I can think of several natives-only nurseries within an hour’s drive, and one in San Francisco itself.

    Me, I’m enthusiastic about native plants, and my garden is about 50% native. The more natives I use, the more lame and out-of-place the non-natives come to seem, and the less interest I have in them (for the most part. Sometimes I feel spurred on to be more creative in blending them in.)

    Ecologists determine floristic provinces and they are big by nature; that’s not some contrivance of dogmatists. California’s is huge because the Pacific Ocean exerts its moderating effect on our climate over a vast area. I lived on the east coast for a few years. The climate there is not so heterogeneous. I think it’s okay to accept the notion of a vast floristic province.

    I don’t fret much about including plants more native to northern or southern California than to the Bay Area. If it grows well here, and I like it, I use it. No doubt purists would object, but it’s my garden. Besides, I’m not really sure what the criteria is for knowing whether something was ever growing here or not.

    My (self-)education in native plants has taught me a lot about the place where I live, and the places near where I live–for that reason alone, native plant love has been entirely worthwhile and I recommend it to anyone. It’s fun to go for a hike or plan trips to see native plants growing wild.

    As for the technical aspects, I haven’t had any trouble getting natives to grow in my very unnatural soil (and the less said about that the better), and with one exception, all the pest-free plants in my garden are natives.

    Go natives!

  4. Also, I wonder if native gardening isn’t another California trend that doesn’t translate especially well to the east coast. The biggest reason to garden with natives in California is so we don’t have to water from April through October. But summer rains are common in the east (right?), so your plants get watered whether you’re doing it or not.

  5. E, I think you’re onto something – that plants that are native to the Eastern deciduous woodland just aren’t that successful in urban and suburban disturbed landscapes, esp. in the sun (so, as replacements for lawn, as is often recommended). In my town a prominent environmental activist has turned his front yard into a native plant demonstration garden (professionally designed) and the gossiped-about reaction is that it looks so scruffy and weedy, it turns people OFF to the idea of going native. I encourage people to forget about native purity and just choose plants that are sustainable for the site.

  6. I’m restoring the gardens at a turn-of-the-last-century historic site that was created as a haven for native wildflowers. About ten years ago, some gardeners planted native wildflowers in the “tame garden” (named by the creator); several plants have taken over their beds because they did not have the natural competition of woodlands and meadows.

  7. I like Chuck’s eloquent defense of natives. The gardener doesn’t need to get rule-bound over the use (or banishment) of natives in the garden. Just explore them and let your eye be the judge of whether you find them garden-worthy.

    That’s what I did at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center when I moved to Austin from the Southeast and had to adapt to a different climate and growing conditions. All my acid-loving favorites fared poorly in the alkaline clay of my new hometown. But once I’d taken a good look at the native plants growing at the Wildflower Center, I was hooked.

    In drought-plagued areas like mine, native plants have built-in survival mechanisms (though they may not look pretty when they’re surviving drought; thus, I do water). They attract native birds and beneficial insects and require no spraying. Most important, to me anyway, they make my garden look like it belongs in central Texas. I love how natives impart a sense of place. Even just a few will sometimes do the trick.

    And, as Chuck pointed out, it IS fun to see one’s garden plants growing wild out in the woods and meadows.

  8. I like diversity too much to simply plant natives in my garden.
    How utterly boring it would be if each one of us could only plant species that were indigenous to our ‘hoods.
    Give me Tibouchinas ( Brazil ) Proteas ( S. Africa) , Grevilleas, Banksia and Phormiums (Australia ) , Beschorneria ( Mexico ) , Brugmansia ( South America) , Cantua ( Chilie ) not to mention the all American favorite ; the tomato who calls South
    America and the Galapagos its true home turf.
    V I V A la diversity !

  9. I am about to move to the eastern deciduous woodland floristic region. The Southern Appalachia where I am headed is the natural crossroads for plants as they shift location with climate changes. It has one of the most diverse biota in the region.

    I will no doubt go more native when I get there simply because many of the natives are already growing there and because many of them have high garden value.

    The native Flame Azaleas, Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel are gorgeous. There are more wildflowers than I know about at the moment. One dwarf Iris that was pilfered from the side of the road in an undisclosed location years ago has multiplied quite well there. I want to cultivate Ramp, Allium tricoccum that grows wild now and become a local distributor for the Ramp Festivals.

    I look forward to the opportunity to use more native plants after two decades of global resort tropical that replaced a long dead native ecosystem.

    “Native” however will only be one criteria and not an absolute. Endurance, performance, function and aesthetics will always come first.

  10. I am amused at the difference in perpectives evidenced here. I got stuck early and couldn’t easily move past:

    “”…since the time before European settlement.” And that’s one helluva long time ago.”

    Of course you are quite right to feel any way you feel. But I always think of “Modern Times” as beginning around 1660 or so… and so the time referenced by the statement doesn’t seem so long ago. Beside, they just mean: “we consider native plants to be those that were here before those wacky Europeans started bringing boatloads of seeds, plants and other stuff over.” Native. I can’t think of any other way to decribe it.

    Besides, my attititude is: If I want it, it will be a native TO MY GARDEN.

    Nice post.

  11. The above link provided is missing the last l so I will repeat here.

    Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

    “Cultivars are usually chosen for visual traits such as flower color, fruit size, or stature,” says Steven Handel of Rutgers University. “Ecotypes form in response to environmental pressures such as climate, soil character, or competition. The former appeal to our eyes; the latter seek to cheat death.”

    Most people think of evolution as something that happened in the deep and distant past, but it is an ongoing, dynamic process. Natural climate change, plate tectonics, and even asteroids were once the main environmental drivers of evolution. Today it’s most likely human beings and everything they have wrought.

    “Ultimately, in our urban ecotype study,” says Handel, “we are exploring the ways evolution is still continuing—with cities being the new theater for evolutionary change.”

  12. One of our favorite places to grab a weekend away is Chincoteague Island where the Assateague Island Wildlife Refuge is. One morning early, we were out and came across a biologist busily taking water samples. He spent quite a bit of time with us explaining (it was all very interesting) how the water is tested every day, levels monitored…this and that added…to maintain the “natural” balance. It turns out that much of that “native” planting and the wonderful wildlife it attracts can’t make it on its own! Without the constant tinkering of a caring and dedicated staff, it would revert, we were told, back to a state not nearly as attractive or diverse…Lovely place, by the way.

  13. And, I’ll add, I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s take on natives. I am a native freak, no two ways about it. I have brought several natives to my own yard, but I more often like to see them in their natural settings. Someone I respect once said that there’s nothing native about our home landscapes. Often this is the truth, but I still see the need to incorporate natives in some way.

    Believe you me, you can have plenty of diversity of species and keep within the ‘native plant’ (whatever definition you use) specs.

    I have sourwood seedlings growing right now, as are my buttonbush seedlings. Natives are wonderful.

  14. I loved seeing the issue of native plant horticulture on the east coast raised on Garden Rant, especially because I am a transplanted New Englander living on the north-central coast of California, who has spent my adult life promoting the use of California native plants in our backyards, schools, median strips, farm edges and roadsides. In some part of my plant- crazy brain, I live a parallel New England life, and in fact, my first Larner Seeds catalog included a section of native plant seed from New England. But I quickly learned I couldn’t provide the necessary depth and information to advise and inform customers without living and gardening there fulltime, so I turned my focus solely to California.
    Anyone interested in this topic from the east coast should definitely check out Sara Stein’s book Noah’s Garden, and the follow-up Planting Noah’s Garden. The chapter “What Mrs. Dana Saw,” explained a lot to me about the New England woods I lived in and still return to when I can.
    I always thought it would be so interesting to see how the principles and MANY different ways to use native plants that are happening in California (and all over the country) could be worked out in New England. Your list of four species is a good one; I remember those plants so fondly. You might also consider some of the wonderful shrubs. Here in California, in this semi-arid clime, the annual wildflower displays are one of the great wonders of the world, and studying their ecology both in the wild and in my garden has been a way in to understanding the place where I live. In New England, annuals, as far as I know, are not a big part of the picture; it’s the shade-loving forest-dwelling perennial wildflowers that are the potential herbaceous garden subjects. How would they work in Elizabeth’s urban garden? How adaptable are they? Intriguing questions. How I would love to play with them. It’s so unfair that gardeners only have one life to live.

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