Exclusive GardenRant Interview with Michael Pollan about Native Plants


by Susan
First, the backstory of how we bagged an interview with the super-busy, hot-selling Pollan, now swept up inPollan
publicity for his latest, In Defense of Food, published fast on the heels of Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Getting through to this guy was going to be hard.  But a friend casually mentioned that she’s on email terms with him and I begged her to deliver a message to him from us, and bam! came his answer, forwarded by the go-between.

Think he’d have answered 20 Questions?  Unlikely, so I asked just one:  Does he stand by the incendiary Against Nativism that he wrote back in 1994 for the New York Times Magazine?  See, that article wasn’t about  the anti-immigrant fervor now rampant in the U.S. but  was a rant against the ideology of native plants.  So, has he changed his mind in the intervening 14 years?  Many of his admirers, if they’ve read the article, assume that he has.

He hasn’t.  Our "exclusive interview" yielded this answer from the Pollanator: "tell ehr its still my thinking, and it apparently has more scientific support.
but I can’t cite any…."  You can tell he’s a very busy man.  I’m only somewhat busy and I don’t correct typos in emails, either.


  • The natural gardening movement is "antihumanist".
  • Gardens are places that "mediate between nature and culture, rather than force us to make an impossible choice."
  • "Turning back the ecological clock to 1492 is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot."
  • "It seems to me we gardeners would do better to try to work with the mongrel ecology we’ve inherited – to start out from there."
  • And "Here’s to multihorticulturalism!"

Readers here won’t be surprised to learn that Pollan’s perspective resonates with me – and I think it’s perfectly consistent with efforts to provide more habitat in people’s gardens.  (And my town will SOON become the first certified habitat community in Maryland!) I do take issue when he uses the dreaded Nazi comparison, which I think everyone’s pretty tired of by now and doesn’t it usually piss people off to no good purpose, anyway?  That may have been provoked by the nag who nearly bit off his head for the offense of planting flowers in a straight line.  (I also agree with commenters here who suggest that attacking us eco-friendly gardeners for not being native plant purists actually hurts the cause.)


  1. What a voice of reason this man is! I think his argument needs to be made a little more vociferously because good money is being wasted in attempts to “re-nativize” public lands. While I can understand the need to keep truly invasive plants in check, there comes a time when you have to decide whether you truly believe in natural selection or not. I do believe in natural selection, so I’m willing to accept that “native” plants (and what a misguided term that is!) will either adapt or die. So be it.

  2. I don’t know where to stand on this issue. I believe both sides. I taught Biology for several years. One thing that fascinated me–was the amount of foreign living organisms brought in by ships dumping their ballast water. I studied that and it opened my eyes to how harmful it is to introduce something into an environment that has no natural enemies. True—balance occurs with a different species being in charge. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It changes everything slowly or quickly depending on how fast it spreads. You may have to move your family and learn a new trade to adapt. I don’t know of anyone it hasn’t affected both good and bad. So I guess the whole subject holds itself in check. We adapt–maybe not so comfortable as before–but we do adapt.

  3. As an advocate of appreciation for many of our lawn weeds, I have to agree. There are introduced/invasive plants I’ll fight to keep them from spreading, but I don’t see a reason why non-natives can’t be appreciated where they’re already thriving. Once I read that clover was non-native, that really pushed me into his camp on that issue.

  4. I don’t give a damn what Pollan says about native plants. I also don’t care what you plant in your garden.
    But helping restore native plants to natural areas where they have been pushed out and destroyed by human habitation is backed by at least as many as are against it. My own education and point of view disagree with Pollan and all those so against native plants.
    Wanting to help save other species is not anti humans, it is a different approach to saving our ass in the long run.
    What exactly qualifies Pollan to make these statements?

  5. Resources

    Some Researchers in the Field

    Suzanne Batra, US Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland

    WJ Bond, University of Capetown, South Africa

    Judie Bronstein, University of Arizona

    Steve Buchmann, Carl Hayden Bee Research Center

    Jim Cane, USDA-ARS Bee Biology Lab, Utah State University

    Sarah Corbet, University of Cambridge, U.K.

    Peter Feinsinger, Northern Arizona University

    Raymond Heithaus, Kenyon College,

    David Inouye, University of Maryland

    Carol Kearns, University of Colorado-Boulder

    Peter Kevan, University of Guelph, Canada

    Eric Menges, Archibald Biological Station, Florida

    Gary Nabhan, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

    Julie Osborne , University of Cambridge, U.K.

    David Paton, University Adelaide, Australia

    Mary Price, University of California-Riverside

    Beverly Rathcke, University of Michigan

    KW Richards, Research Station, Agriculture Canada, Lethbridge, Alberta

    David Roubik, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama

    Vincent Tepedino, USDA-ARS Bee Biology Lab, Utah State University

    James Thomson, State University of New York-Stony Brook

    Robin Thorp, University of California- Davis

    Nick Waser, University of California-Riverside


    Allen-Wardell, G. et al. 1998. “The Potential Consequences of Pollinator Declines on the Conservation of Biodiversity and Stability of Food Crop Yields,” Conservation Biology 12: 8–17.

    Barth, F. 1985. Insects and Flowers: The Biology of a Partnership. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

    Buchmann, S.L., and G.P. Nabhan. 1996. The Forgotten Pollinators. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

    Butz Huryn, V.M. 1997. “Ecological Impacts of Introduced Honey Bees,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 72(3): 275–297.

    Kearns, C.A., D.W. Inouye, and N. Waser. 1998. “Endangered Mutualisms: The Conservation of Plant-Pollinator Interactions,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29: 83–112.

    Kearns, C.A., and D. Inouye. 1997. “Pollinators, Flowering Plants and Conservation Biology,” BioScience 47: 297–397.

    Matheson, A., et al. eds. 1996. The Conservation of Bees. New York: Academic Press.

    Nabhan, G.P., and S.L. Buchmann. 1997. “Services Provided by Pollinators,” in Nature’s Services, G. Daily ed. Washington D.C.: Island Press, pp. 133–150.

  6. It’s too early on a Sunday morning for me to judge whether I’m narrowing or broadening the discussion, but what about cogitating in the general direction of biodiversity?

    Searching the term a few minutes ago, I found an interesting Nov 20, 2007 post at the following blog: frogmatters dot wordpress dot com.

  7. Claire, I couldn’t disagree more! Native plants don’t have the same marketers that many of the other exotic species have. So it is not exactly natural selection, it is more economic selection. The burning bush, barberry, ornimental pear, etc… have powerful lobbiests in their corner, while bladdernut, nannyberry, and blackhaw etc… are left in the back of the nursery lot. It is education and true diodiversity that is being left behind in this argument. Yes I have exotics in my yard, and I am no purist, but at the rate that rural and wild lands are being gobbled up by 5 acre fescue and ornamental ‘Pearadises’, that are not truly appreciated by people who don’t get outside, the argument for natives needs to be made.

  8. What studies really find on the subject of preserving native organisms is not reducible to a yes or no conclusion, unless you’re operating from a predetermined bias the way Pollan is.

    I think it’s interesting that he says nativists are “antihuman” and yet he’s a vegetarian, which basically ignores millions of years of evolution and human anatomy.

    Without industrialization he wouldn’t be able to be a veg because he couldn’t get the required B vitamins from his food. He says as much in one of his books. So industrialization and manufactured vitamins are “pro-human”?

    This whole cult of adoration that has grown up around him is very disturbing, and saying that a one-sentence, misspelled answer from an e-mail is an “exclusive interview” is even more so.

  9. Firefly, as I told my go-between to Pollan, calling this misspelled sentence from him an “exclusive interview” was making fun of myself. So no need to be disturbed that I’ve joined some cult. In fact, what I like best about the ’94 article is that the MP cult members are so shocked by it!

  10. MB, in fact, as far as marketers are concerned, so-called “native” plants are the new new thing, and are being marketed now like crazy. But my reference to natural selection doesn’t have much to do with marketing. A lot of native plants have very precise or delicate reproductive systems or cycles, and even mild changes in climate, habitat, pollinators, or any number of other factors can sometimes mean curtains for them. I would never argue that species extinction due to climate change, habitat loss from human sprawl, and chemical interference aren’t vitally serious issues that we need to address. But with few exceptions, I don’t think “foreign” plants are the culprits some make them out to be. It was eye-opening for me when a propagator I met at the IPPS conference last year who was working on propagating natives was commenting about how difficult some natives are to germinate and grow and said “you know, sometimes plants die off for good reasons.”

  11. True, many natives are quite difficult to germinate, cold stratification, scarification, smoke, fire, companion species… Thus many plants we have in our gardens are by default those that are easy to propagate. If gardens were better integrated into our natural/native surroundings this would not be an issue, but by definition gardens defy nature in that they are created by our species.
    While I subscribe to certain tennants of Deep Ecology, all plants have not evolved together over the epochs. This is what gives many exotics a competitive advantage. The rate of habitat loss in our North American ecosystems has grown exponentially over the past 50 years, and introductions of some species have and continue to be irresponsible and rampant. I wouldn’t exactly call the marketing for native plants here (Midwest) a craze, we still have to fight the business as usual growers and garden centers. If more growers cared and took the time they would be able to grow more natives. And “native” should be refered to as native, yes I know a city is not a native ecosystem, but if we get outside of that there are historical records/natural areas that surround most of our communities, and this is where true native plants can be found.

  12. I think extremes are always a poor idea. To go Native or not seems like an unnecessary dichotomy. My friend Walt Cudnohufsky, founder of the Conway School of Landscape Design which promotes native plants in a sustainable landscape, does not think ALL exotics have to go – and that hybrids of native plants that are more suitable for a cultivated garden, but still fill the needs of the local food web are perfectly fine in a native garden.

  13. Two thoughts after reading this piece:

    1. The man holds his opinions too harshly, especially for someone with nothing of substance to back them up. Anyone with such a fundie-type stance is scary, and not very credible to people who try to employ critical-thinking and see all sides to an issue. Plus, he’s didactic and evidences no sense of humor.

    2. Does anyone else find disturbing this trend of gardeners who plunk down excessive amounts of money on inbred plants that are basically nothing more than eye candy? They look good for a while, but they don’t _do_ much of anything (reality check: if you think a plant doesn’t have any tasks except to please a human viewer, please do something about your ignorance/misguided values). So the gardener gets bored after a bit and seeks the thrill of the next hotsy-totsy hybrid (with a patent on it for goodness’ sake!) that you can’t even “breed” naturally, if at all. What does that scenario remind you of? (sheesh!)

  14. Here’s a book for everyone who can’t see the point of planting only natives: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens (Douglas Tallamy).

    The book’s main arguments are:
    1-Non-native plants bring diseases into this country that native plants have no resistance to. Oak trees are now threatened by a fungus brought into this country on rhododendrons. Dogwoods are dying from a disease probably carried by kousa dogwoods.
    2-Insects co-evolved with native plants and prefer them as a source of pollen and nectar. That includes butterflies and bees.
    3-Birds need a lot of insects, which make up the primary diet of nestlings. Many non-native plants are popular because insects leave them alone.

    With so many beautiful endangered animals in this country, why not do what you can to help?

  15. The genie is out of the bottle.

    Let’s just plant stuff that pleases us and the fauna in our gardens, no matter where it comes from–and not asphalt over any more natural habitats if we can help it.

  16. I advocate for native plants, however I am realistic about their place in home landscapes (at least I hope I am). Natives only gardens will never happen. Not just because people won’t go for it but because it would drastically affect the hort industry, something decidedly not a good thing in these uneasy economic times. We should, however, be smart about plant selection. We should not add to existing problems.

    I do support the movement to restore native habitat on public lands and in natural areas as much as we possibly can. Since we (big general “we” that covers our ancestors, too) brought over the invaders in our quest for exotic lovelies or simply by moving from one area to another, I feel we should do what we can to undo the damage that we wrought.

    Our knowledge about how native plants and native fauna interact is still in its infancy but what is known is that they have a very rich relationship that non-natives can not hope to achieve without thousands of years of co-evolution. Yes, adaptations will occur, as they would have without the addition of non-natives. However, we have impacted the process by bringing in more plants, more diseases, more pests at a rate much faster than most creatures can respond and survive. We can not wait for adaptation to happen; too much is at stake and it will impact us in ways we can not even imagine.

    Thanks for the links, Gloria.

  17. As someone in the landscape and retail nursery biz for awhile in the NW, it’s been interesting seeing what type of customers are interested in native plants. Many don’t consider the fact that city lots don’t tend to have native soils and their exposure may not favor many of the woodland natives sold in local nurseries. Also, most of our native trees are not appropriate for small city lots. So, I alway have to stress “right plant- right place” to customers regardless of their interest in going native.

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