Native—or not so much?



Here’s another example of an issue that’s been bewildering me for some time. Mentee Ron pointed me to a local garden center website that’s trying to be more a regional gardening resource than simply an advertisement for their business. Which is wonderful, because as we’ve been pointing out, online centers of gardening expertise are still very much needed, and they should be local, for obvious reasons.

This is still very much a work-in-progress, but I was interested to see that they’re starting a discussion forum, inviting gardeners to submit images of their gardens, and sharing information of all types, including essays and a sizable group of plant descriptions. One of their “articles” references native plants. They start right out by saying: Though the inclusion of cultivars is often debated in native plant circles, in the interest of promoting this worthwhile trend we have included them here. More will be written here on this subject in the coming months. And then you have a very lengthy list, that, just as an example, includes all these plants: Coreopsis auriculata ‘Zamfir’, Coreopsis ‘Creme Brulee’, Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Early Sunrise’,
Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Rising Sun’,
Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunray’
,Coreopsis ‘Heaven’s Gate’, Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’, Coreopsis lanceolata ‘Sterntaler’, Coreopsis pubescens ‘Sunshine Superman’,
Coreopsis ‘Tequila Sunrise’,
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Golden Gain’,
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Golden Showers’,
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’,
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Sunbeam’, and Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’.

I am by NO MEANS a purist on natives, but I do get a lot of conflicting information, particularly on those flowers that are best for my area. When, for instance, I had a native plant enthusiast write an article on the topic, she was quite insistent about distinguishing between certain cultivars. (Sadly, neither of the mail order sources she indicates at the end seem to be in business.) I know other bloggers would like to have better resources on this as well. I wonder, will it happen? Is a list like the all-inclusive type featured on the Zehr’s site something we should take seriously? Whether I decide to go native-exclusive or not—and it is very unlikely I ever would—I still like to have the correct information, and sources for that information are few and far between.

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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. Methinks your native plant enthusiast is a bit TOO enthusiastic. To declare native plants – or nonnative ones, for that matter – to be “maintenance-free” is ridiculous.

  2. The declaration of “maintenance-free” also caught my eye. No plant, no landscape can ever be deemed maintenance-free. After all, silk flowers need dusting and concrete needs sweeping.

    I am a native plant enthusiast, with about 60 species of natives in my garden (at last count, might be more now). I give lectures, write articles and co-wrote a self-published book on natives. Obviously, I encourage people to grow natives. However, I don’t elevate them to pedestal status, as if natives are the be-all, end-all of plants. No plant can live up to such rosy (some might say unrealistic) expectations and when it fails to do so, I think that hurts the native plant movement more than when natives are presented warts and all.

    For instance, if a small garden owner opts for salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), they are likely to regret that decision when salmonberry suckers and spreads through their small plot. They would have been better off with evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), hands down one of my favorite shrubs. As with any plant, “right plant, right place” can make or break natives inclusion in a garden.

    I recently wrote two articles on this subject for Digger, the publication for the Oregon Association of Nurseries. The subject of whether native cultivars can be called natives came up. As stated above, it is much debated and, based on my research, there is no consensus on the subject.

    “Further complicating what earns the native moniker is the issue of whether a named form of a native plant should also be classified as a native. For instance, is red-flowering currant ‘White Icicle’ (Ribes sanguineum ‘Ubric’) a native? Does the answer change if a selected form is a naturally occurring variant found growing in the wild? Does one plant form found in the natural environment make it a race of natives, or must there be hundreds of thousands to qualify?

    Where do we draw the line between native and nonnative status?”

    Personally, I agree with the answer given by Mark Krautmann, co-owner of Heritage Seedlings Inc. in Salem, Oregon, a nursery very well-established as restoration experts. He respects the many viewpoints but feels there are more relevant distinctions to be made. “If we were research geneticists, it might matter more. We should pick our battles…There are more urgent things that need our attention. It may be better to define what is invasive – that discussion can have an action outcome.”

    Krautmann feels that selected forms, which often offer more intense colors, color combinations and sequential bloom times, may provide the toehold to get native plants into more landscapes. If that’s what it takes, we should encourage, not discourage, this action and not argue over native classification.

    I tell gardeners that if the number one reason they are choosing to grow natives is to increase their gardens’ habitat value, they should stick with native species. While it is very possible that named forms retain all of the habitat value of the species, it is impossible to know for sure. For instance, double-flowered forms, lovely to our eye may present accessibility challenges to pollinators. The study of relationships of insects, invertebrates and other small life forms with plants is still a relatively young science.

    I guess my long post says almost as much about my native plant enthusiasm as my words do. 😉

  3. The CW on cultivars is they are usually tissue clones to make sure they are true to description (especially if they are patented), and therefore lack the genetic variability of the parent plants, which is an adaptive disadvantage, may change garden interactions, and runs counter to the whole idea of why natives are good.

    From what I’ve been able to find in the past 2 years, a good rule of thumb is the closer a cultivar resembles the native form on the outside (no double flowers, colors not appearing in Nature, or heinous double rows of echinacea petals) the more likely it is to fit in and function similar to a native.

    I have Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’ and Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’ (cultivars of natives), Buddleia davidii ‘Adonis Blue’ (non-native) alongside Lobelia siphilitica (native, species form), and they are all busy with native insects and hummingbirds while in bloom.

    Even if you go all the way with natives, it’s certainly possible to select species forms of designated natives and still come out with a micro-environment not to be found in Nature, which will also skew garden interactions. Lobelia and penstemon are both native to Maine, but would they be found in the wild growing within 50 feet of each other? I’m not so sure.

    But, after all, it is a garden, and not a nature preserve.

  4. Lisa, if it’s not too much trouble, could you move to Western New York for a year or so, research us, and write a book on Native Plants of WNY? Or you may choose a more creative title.

    We’d all really appreciate it!!l (smiley emoticon here)

  5. Firefly, the freakish echinaceas Double Decker and Pink Double Delight are both on the Zehr’s native plant list. If I were an insect I would be very leery of either of those. But I’m not an insect, so who knows.

  6. Thanks for the offer, Eliz, I’m flattered! I love that region (lived in York, PA in the late 60’s, visited Niagara, Finger Lakes, had a roomie from Oneida). I wasn’t a gardener at the time (I was 8, 9, and 10) but I remember spring-blooming mayapples very fondly.

    The publication I co-wrote was a long time in the making and began as a very bare-bones production. I donated the vast majority of my time, as did many, many others. While we have some excellent native plant resources for our region, not many of them addressed garden use, or if they did, not quite sufficiently for our needs as gardeners and as volunteers guiding students as they designed and installed school gardens (one of our target markets). I often found myself wondering what to do with a plant once it was in the garden. And I can’t tell you how many plants I killed before learning their secrets, thanks in large part to the wonderful folks at an email discussion list through

    Timber Press is coming out with a book this spring that sounds very promising, Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes by Kathleen A. Robson, Alice Richter, and Marianne Filbert. I’ve already cleared space on my shelf for it (one can never have enough books, plants or chocolate). If it delivers as it promises (and from what I hear, it should), it will be a positive step in helping gardeners grow natives successfully in their gardens.

    Speaking of Timber Press, while searching for the above title, I spotted one called Native Plants of the Northeast, A Guide for Gardening & Conservation by Donald J. Leopold. Don’t know if this would be helpful to you but it’s worth a look.

  7. Re cultivars of native plants, here is a quote from Douglas Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens” – I’m sure he won’t mind my quoting him if it help us:”I predict that in most cases, cultivars of native plants should be fine. The studies to prove this have not been done, but the chances are slim that a genetic change in the flower color or the fall leaf coloration of a native species would substantially change the palatability of that genotype for native insect specialists…”

    By the way, I recommend this book. I am reading it now and it is a clear exposition on how our gardens have become the only existing “nature” left, since we have converted to human use 95-97% of the land in the lower 48 states. Sobering news.

  8. You’re welcome! I will gladly dig up more if you’re interested.

    And thanks to you, too. I visited your page (that crested Pachipodium is amazing), which led me to other posts here at Garden Rant that I hadn’t yet seen, specifically the conversations about Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home (now on my wish list) and other natives vs non-natives discussions.

    I saw a question posed in the comments section of the interview with Bellamy (at least I think that’s where it was) about how regional his book was but I didn’t see it answered. Is his research, and thus his book, specifically geared to his region? Or does the info apply in all regions?

    I love learning about how nature interacts with plants, but a book about how this happens in my own backyard, so to speak (or even for real) would have me jumping up and down for joy. Thanks to anyone who can answer this for me.

    I took a look at the nursery link you provided, Elizabeth. I’m very glad to see nurseries take this step – good for them. However, I have a quibble and, if you are inclined to and they want feedback, please pass it along to them.

    Plants native to North America encompasses a broad region with quite diverse climates and fauna. If they defined the native region for each plant or perhaps focused on natives to their region only, I think it would be more beneficial to their customers, especially those gardening for wildlife. Butterfly adults may not be as particular about food sources but their caterpillars sure are. For instance, I planted western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) to serve as host plant for clodius panarssian butterfly, a butterfly native to the upper NW of the US. Eastern bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) looks very similar to my untrained eye but its foliage is toxic to the clodius parnassian even though both bleeding hearts are native to North America.

    A site I’ve found really useful for identifying what butterflies live in my region is If you go to the map search button, you can zero in on your county (for you, Elizabeth, that would be, Erie county, right?) Cool, huh? Sometimes they include caterpillar photos but not always. If you want that, google USGS Caterpillars of Eastern Forests. It should be the first hit.

  9. Lisa, if you read the 3 Tallamy posts (all of which were posted in a row in early December–accessible at sidebar) you’ll get a better sense of where he is coming from. I am pretty sure he is not especially regional–his main point is that suburban gardeners can supply habitat, i.,e., we can’t go back but we can make do.

  10. Tallamy omitted the Northeast entirely in the appendices on native plants, which I found irritating.

    I checked out the Leopold book at the local Borders and was not impressed by it — the Northeast is a huge region and from what I could see plants weren’t attributed to specific areas. (For example, Delphinium exaltatum is native to Maine and New York but not Vermont.)

    The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is an awesome online database of natives. It is cross-referenced with the USDA plants database, which gives map and county references for native status where available. It also allows searching by region or state (say, the Northeast, or Maine) for a complete list of natives, or you can navigate to a recommended list of commercially available offerings.

    I’d post more than one link but HTML tags are not enabled here, so here’s the link to the database combination search page:

  11. I also highly recommend Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home because it gives such an excellent explanation of the food web. He also does touch on the question of cultivars. The book is not particularly regional because he is talking about principles.

    I am lucky and live near the New England Wildflower Society nursery at Nasami Farm in Whately, Mass. where you not only find natives that work well in the garden, but also good advice.

    In addition, the NEWFS has published several books on natives, propogating and growing wildflwoers, and native groundcovers. William Cullina, NEWFS director of research has a new book coming out Native Ferns, Moss and Grasses including regions beyond New England.

  12. I also highly recommend Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home because it gives such an excellent explanation of the food web. He also does touch on the question of cultivars. The book is not particularly regional because he is talking about principles.

    I am lucky and live near the New England Wildflower Society nursery at Nasami Farm in Whately, Mass. where you not only find natives that work well in the garden, but also good advice.

    In addition, the NEWFS has published several books on natives, propogating and growing wildflwoers, and native groundcovers. William Cullina, NEWFS director of research has a new book coming out Native Ferns, Moss and Grasses including regions beyond New England.

  13. Meant to post this sooner but forgot, dang CRS syndrome.

    A local nursery that I think does a great job of promoting and educating the home gardener about natives is Portland Nursery, thanks to the efforts of Peggy Acott, community outreach and primary native plant purchaser for the Stark Street location. In addition to the plant information on the labels at the nursery, she posts more information on the nursery website, including a native plant of the month feature. Go to then select “Northwest Natives” under the “Plants’ button in the top banner.

  14. In the article you mentioned one of the nurseries,Amanda’s Garden is still in business the web address in the article is incorrect. The correct internet web address is .I am very excited about Mr. Tallamy’s Book it is well written and easy to understand. I think adding native plants to your garden is more than a good idea, it is nessasary to sustain our way of life. We seem to always wait until it is too late to decide we need to do something to protect our environment. Adding native plants to our gardens is a no brainer.

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