Native vs. invasive once again—it’s Tallamy’s turn


I am not a purist and I don't expect many other people will be either. I think taking the hard line and insisting on all natives will go a long way toward killing the movement.
—Doug Tallamy, Garden Rant interview, 12/12/07

Tallamy_d Mild-mannered Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, is still smiling but he’s also a bit exasperated at the backlash he’s noticing against native plant advocacy, the latest example of which was found in a New York Times op-ed entitled Mother Nature’s Melting Pot.   If you don’t care to waste your NYTimes free article-reading ration (and we did just link to this a few days back), basically the op-ed—written by anthropologist Hugh Raffles—compares negative feelings toward alien plants to xenophobia, and praises non-natives eucalyptus and ice plant for their abilities to feed bees and deter erosion. The op-ed generated several letters of protest in the Times and dozens of passionate comments when it was posted here.

I caught up with Tallamy last Thursday before his presentation on the importance of growing native plants at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. He gave the Times piece short shrift. Like many of those who commented here, he notes that the writer has no scientific credentials in this area, and maintains that an emotional argument about plants being persecuted or tolerated has nothing to do with maintaining the food web and, with it, biodiversity. He also referred me to a long response to the Times op-ed  published by a colleague of his, conservationist John Peter Thompson. (I couldn’t even begin to summarize it.)

Tallamy takes another pro-alien argument a bit more seriously. In March, Susan linked to Penn State biologist Tomas Carlo’s study positing (to briefly summarize) that an abundance of Japanese honeysuckle in Pennsylvania helps sustain bird populations, and that removing the honeysuckle would disrupt this newly developed relationship and thus do more harm than good.  

Tallamy’s response: “That’s like saying if I drive down I 95 and stop at a rest center and there’s a whole bunch of starlings feeding at the garbage can, than I 95 must be good for birds. We know that birds eat honeysuckle berries. This is not news. By the way, the birds [in the study] were catbirds and robins. All the neotropical birds who eat insects disappear when you’ve got a world full of honeysuckles.

“Berries do not provide food when the birds are rearing their young. And then they took blooming nightshade in pots and put it in the middle of the honeysuckle to show that it would help disperse native berries. But [in actuality] no native berry-producers would survive in an area overrun with lonicera japonica. So the logic just doesn’t work.

“We should not hate plants just because they’re good at capitalizing on disturbance. It’s not black and white. I’m all for compromise. There used to be complex communities of native plants here supporting wonderfully diverse realms of life. Look out that window and count the number of animals you see. [Referring to huge front lawn of the botanical gardens] You see a vast lawn and nothing—maybe a blackbird or a robin. And we are so used to seeing nothing we think that’s normal. The reason they’re gone is because the food web that supported them is gone. Yes, grass is better than dirt, but better for what?

“Most people garden in a very small percentage of their yard and the rest is barren. Have your hobbies, grow what you want, but also put in some of the trees that used to be there to support the birds that you probably still do like. … I’d like to keep the discussion scientific and keep the emotion out of it. Just don’t tell me that these choices have no consequences and that any plant is as good as any other plant.”

Tallamy hopes to publish a second book that will provide a more comprehensive answer to the “how” question of gardeners adding more native plants—particularly in the lawn-dominated neighborhoods that continue to be the focus of his concern.

My take? Just as it did the first time I talked to this scientist, the idea of using as many natives trees and shrubs as possible appeals to me. But then, stuck as I am with 3 Norway maples, just about any other tree plan would sound pretty good.

The good news for Doug Tallamy is that—though clearly there is a backlash against the native plant movement—for the most part, the audiences he is reaching on his tour seem unaware of it. And  I continually meet experienced gardeners who have just discovered his book and tell me that it has forever changed the choices they make and the advice they give.

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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. Excellent! But I think “native v. nonnative” or a similar phrase would avoid the confusion that’s caused by “native v. invasive”. I hear from people who literally think the opposite of native is invasive.

  2. It seems to me that this is a battle that has already been lost, and what we need to concentrate on is creating healthy landscapes free of poisons, whatever their composition.

  3. Our yard is full of Japanese honeysuckle, and you’ll never see a nesting bird use them to feed her fledglings. That a biologist from Penn State publishes something that doesn’t make sense is no longer surprising. The backlash against native plants is foolhardy. If only a small percentage of urban homeowners would follow what professor Tallamy preaches, it would make a huge difference in our country, both biologically and aesthetically.

  4. I’m a big Doug Tallemy fan, but when I took the list of native plants in his book for Michigan I could not find a nursery that grew those trees and shrubs. I learned that virtually all the “native plant” nurseries grow native wildflowers and native water plants. So while his story makes absolute sense, the industry does not.

  5. Elizabeth,what an excellent rebuttal article suggested by Tallamy.
    Sunday morning was spent watching a dozen or so Cedar Waxwing (a bird that migrates through our city) raid the Juniper berries from our garden. The birds would sit high up in the still bare branches of a Maple tree while people or cars passed by, then during quite moments fly into the lower Junipers to snatch the small bluish berries.
    My garden is filled with creatures year round as a result of the diversity and richness of planting even here in a major city.

    Gardening with many plants native to this area has been productive and personally rewarding.

  6. What always strikes me as odd about the native plant debate is that it is so artificially two-sided. As if there were only two landscape options, native or non-native, and anything in between was beyond our imaginations to comprehend and ponder.

  7. One more point, the fundamental goal of restoration, conservation and preservation is not to restore to some point in history,but to restore the biodiversity of an area. This includes the genetic diversity within individual species and the number of species in a given community. The knowledge base for a functioning ecosystem is pretty extensive for many habitats, but learning more is an ongoing field of study.

    A cool little video that puts a simple spin on the idea can be found at the following link.

    A longer more complex video.

  8. Jeff, I don’t know if it would work in your area, but try contacting your closest agricultural extension service and explain what you’re looking for; they might be able to put you in touch with a local group that grows natives for your area. These kind of groups are all over, but often don’t do much advertising, but they often have sales of plant starts in the Spring. Our local watershed group raises money and awareness by contracting with a local nursery to grow native plants and tree seedlings for an annual sale, and the plants sell for incredibly reasonable prices.

  9. I’m lucky enough to be in an area with a really good botanical garden that has native plant sales daily, as well as an awesome local independant nursery that carries a lot of natives. It’s made it easy for me to go mostly native in my gardening…and frankly, I’ve taken up collecting native plants the way that I used to collect Magic cards. “Oooh, Appalachian mock-orange! I don’t have any of that yet!” “Rattlesnake Master! Awesome!” My garden’ll probably never win any awards for design, what with the plant-collection-style going on, but now that I’ve gone down the native road, I can’t imagine returning to big-box store shrubs.

    (Also, Jeff–mail order is your friend! You’ll have to check native status, of course, but I know Niche Gardens does a lot of native shrubs and has great plants. And have you checked the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association website?)

  10. I saw Doug Tallamy speak last year at our State’s native plant symposium and really enjoyed it. I don’t think all hope is lost, it does take education though. Our master gardener group is at the local farmers markets most weekends, and I spend a lot of time talking to people about alternatives to things like Bradford Pear (bleck!) Most people are fairly receptive and really have no idea- they just want their house to look nice and comply with HOA restrictions.

  11. Jeff, my local Lowe’s has native plants. They even mark them as native. Last weekend, I saw silver maples, viburum dentatum, highbush blueberry, moutain laurel, and native azaleas. (Not to mention all the native perennials they routinely sell.)

  12. Birds eat berries. Some are nutritious, some are not and are merely “bird doritos”. One of the flaws of the Penn State study.

    To counter – the correlation of (the exotic invasive) Lonicera maackii and tick born disease:

    Finally, I don’t know that there is a native plant backlash. The NY Times published my op-ed on biodiversity loss due to urbanization the week prior: “When New York City Bloomed”:

  13. Michele,

    The only way we can go about “creating healthy landscapes” is through the inclusion of more indigenous plants.

    The battle is not “lost” because it is not over: as long as people continue to make choices about what to plant, there is always the possibility that some of the people can make a better choice some of the time.

  14. Welcome to the discussion Marielle Anzelone. I have been very happy to see your increased voice for native plantings,especially in the city.

  15. If I had a larger property, I would have at least one redwood tree, if not more–I love the smell of them and their fallen-bits mulch.

    The only thing good I can say about ewwwcalyptus is that tencel is one of my favorite fabrics. It’s a good use for that huge hulking allergen. I’ve never been able to tolerate the smell of them, acacia (there is a native variety in the Bay Area that makes me ill), or carob/St. John’s Bread trees. I do rather like the stuff *called* ice plant that may actually be something else, but using it for erosion control on canyon hillsides and sand dunes is a good place for it.

    If Bradford Pears are the “ornamental pear” trees that were in front of the International dorm (Oldenborg) at Pomona College, then you couldn’t pay me to have them–the scent made, and probably still makes, me gag.

    The people who owned this house before us (don’t know how many owners back) planted “generica” all over, instead of planting named plants that one could admire, smell, and be happy to look at. I know you’ll know what I did after moving in…At least they left the two magnolias and the lovely spruce that may have been planted late in the 50s.

  16. I’m glad he’s coming out with another book because I was really disappointed with his first. I understood the point he was trying to make, and agree with it wholeheartedly, but I just couldn’t understand why everyone’s been swooning over the book. His landscaping information was really vague and uninformed, he resorted to ’emotional argument’ oftentimes (i.e. blaming cats for bird population declines, etc.), and made huge generalizations applied nationwide based on his experiences in a small mid-Atlantic area. Heck, he even left out a huge part of the west in his regional recommendations as if it just wasn’t there. I kept asking myself, ‘This is the work of a scientist?’ Great bug pictures, however. He is returning to my state to give a public talk (fourth one in three years) and this time I’m going in the hope I become a fan.

    BTW, I tried reading that Thompson piece (thank you for posting the link) and it rambled all over the place. No wonder you couldn’t summarize it.

  17. Tallamy’s book is not really a landscaping book, but that doesn’t make it “uninformed”. The point of the book is that the plants we use matter, ecologically speaking. Tallamy makes that point clearly, convincingly, and without emotion.

    His book is really the first book that does that, which is why people are “swooning”.

    And free-range cats really ARE a problem. I like cats (that’s emotion) but they kill a lot of birds (that’s fact).

  18. Yes, let’s also work on NOT thinking we need Miracle Grow or TruGreen. We do not NEED fertilizer and chemicals as soon as things green up and it hits 70. MY GOD! All the damn commercials this time of year–I tossed my coffee able into the TV!!!

  19. GardenRant – thanks for finally lending the floor to someone who has given this area of information thorough scientific research.

    Tallamy’s book, and podcast on Timber Press’ website, gave me the first inkling of understanding that people advocating for use of native plants are not merely trying to re-create a museum of only-natives, but are instead trying for enough biodiversity to feed the insects (and therefore birds) that rely exclusively on certain types of plant to procreate and eat.

    Michelle, your comment about how we’ve already lost this battle shows such a woeful misunderstanding of natives that I am thoroughly dismayed. Obviously we have not already lost the battle, if there are still insects and birds alive who rely on these plants.

    I don’t think the native plant movement is saying you can’t enjoy other plants, too. I certainly use non-natives. As a landscaper and maintenance gardener I use primarily non-natives. But I keep natives in mind and use them whenever possible/ appropriate to help support our wildlife and ecosystems.

    As Tallamy aptly pointed out – sometimes we have areas that need a plant, any plant, just to fill the space. If you’re not yet a big enough fan of your local native plants to put them in the most visible areas of your garden, why not slot them into the backdrop? Doesn’t hurt you, and it helps these birds and bugs survive.

  20. Thanks,Gloria! I appreciate that. And Vincent – hi and you are spot on. Genevieve – you are exactly right. It’s not about *only* natives. It’s being ecologically thoughtful when we create our landscapes.

  21. Hi GardenRant. I love you! Best blog ever.

    You should know this about the NY Times changes – you don’t get “charged” for coming to their site from a link on a blog. See this: “Readers who come to Times articles through links from search engines, blogs and social media will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. This allows new and casual readers to continue to discover our content on the open Web. On all major search engines, users will have a daily limit on free links to Times articles.”

    Its from the editor’s letter, linked here:

    So link away and we can read more for free!!

  22. I’m using more and more natives and certainly seeing a lot more local critters and birds in my yard now. It’s nice to go outside and hear all the birds. I can go just a few houses over and hear none and see no life in their yard, while mine is full of local insects, lizards, spiders, etc.

    I think we have to garden for all the creatures around us, and to suit our environment, not just for ourselves.

  23. I live in the woods, there are poplars, maples, beech, oak, dogwoods, cherry, laurels and even a huge walnut on my property. I’ve tried hard to introduce not only native perennials but vines and shrubs as well. Guess what happens, the deer find the natives to be far more appetizing then anything else. They are happy to by pass my hosta and azalea to dine on sweetspires, fringe trees, witch hazel and bittersweet. So while it sounds romantic to have a garden full of natives the fact is that in doing so you will also have to deal with the ‘natives’ that have somewhere in the dna a memory of eating those yummy, long lost natives!

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