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


Native plants—a topic that we’ll be discussing for rants to come. In this one from March, 2007, Elizabeth is noting the vast differences between the original environments for these species and her urban garden in Buffalo (among other things). She has a lot more native plants now than she had then, including the white version of this baneberry. Canaday Wildflowers is no longer linked because the nursery seems to have closed.

Baneberry image courtesy of Shutterstock
Baneberry image courtesy of Shutterstock

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. 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.


  1. While I can agree with your observations wondering about how “native” our soil in some especially urban areas is, there is so much more to consider when adding native plants to our landscapes. Douglas Tallamy has written a wonderful book (Bringing Nature Home) about how native plants encourage native insects which 90 some percent of all our birds feed their babies, even those birds who mostly eat seeds. So if we want to have birds and bees and butterflies, we need to plant native plants. Butterflies might get nectar from non-natives like Butterfly Bush (not native here in Michigan anyway) but they won’t lay their eggs on them because their larva can’t eat Butterfly bush leaves. I have non-natives in my yard but more and more I plant natives and they can be just as beautiful as non-natives.

    • Thanks Susan,

      I actually interviewed Doug twice for Garden Rant after I wrote this. At the time I wrote this 2007 post, Doug’s book had not yet appeared. I agree with Doug, on the whole.

      However, there is also good evidence that “alien” plants can provide excellent habitat. See Peter del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants, which Susan posted about in 2011. It is really interesting, as I review posts for these #TBTs, how the discussion of natives, invasives, etc. has gone over the 10 years we’ve been writing.

  2. I’d like to know who penned this piece. I don’t see a name. Also what does #TBT stand for?–Is this a Twitter thing? Sorry, I’m not on Twitter. Thanks!

    • Laura, this is a reprint of one of Elizabeth Licata’s pieces. TBT stands for “Throwback Thursday” – if you’re on Facebook, you’ll see it used often.

  3. Almost all terrestrial birds, 96% of them, rear their young on insects, not bird seed. Now here’s the important part, more than 90% of moth and butterfly caterpillars eat only particular native plants that they’ve evolved with. It’s the Monarch/Milkweed story. That’s why planting natives is so critical. It will take 5000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees, and that’s a tiny bird. Enhancing the food web is important for all wildlife.

    When planting natives, all good rules of horticulture still apply. You still need the right plant for the right place. I work for American Beauties Native Plants. We license wholesale growers to grow a pallet of plants that is native to their area. Obviously our grower in Arizona has a completely pallet than our grower in Connecticut. We work with them to create a collection of landscape worthy native plants. We brand our pots and tags to help consumers identify what is native at the independent garden center level.

    My own garden is a mix of natives and non-natives. I wouldn’t want to live with out lilacs or peonies. But, I have an equal appreciation for the life native plants bring to my garden.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond, Peggy Anne

  4. A very good point is made about natives and soil as a lot of people, (particularly here in Southern California, land of master planned communities) miss this one and assume that our urban soil is ‘native soil’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of our home landscapes are not built on ‘soil’ at all but on fill (I’m on 80′ of fill!) which contains nothing most plants need to survive and thrive. It’s been sliced and diced, pulled from various soil layers from who knows where and, worse, the topsoil has been stripped off so there is no functioning soil biology in there for natives (who are dependent on it) to partner with.
    Even when using local native species we should add organic matter and decompact the soil (mechanical soil compaction is part of the construction process) so plants can grow and the soil can drain.
    If you look at our facebook page – scroll down to January 19 – (https://www.facebook.com/myavantgarden) you’ll see a soil sample taken from an untouched wild hillside and a sample taken from a backyard. The wild hillside soil is rich, dark and drains beautifully, the backyard soil is nasty, blue, compacted and utterly lacking in organic matter.
    When planting natives soil prep is really important. It’s also important to choose ‘garden worthy’ natives known to be able to handle urban conditions and to be patient with gardeners on a learning curve.
    We have lots of beauties down here in Orange County, CA and wonderful native plants nurseries. I would offer the advice that if you are buying natives – go to a native plant nursery. They understand them and often can educate you much better than traditional nurseries can and big box store nursery departments won’t know much, if anything, at all. Great subject! Love Garden Rant!

    • Thanks! I am really lucky in that there is a great native plant nursery near me and several others who carry large selections of natives.

      As for soil, I do what I can, though there is still a lot of room for improvement. It’s a battle.

  5. Thank you for posting this reasoning in support of native plants.

    It was a surprise to learn that gardens full of exotics provide very little or no food for birds. Songbirds migrate as everyone knows, and if they arrive and there’s nothing to eat and to feed their young, they simply can not live. As it turns out, a lot of once common North American birds are in gradual population decline, a percent or two a year for the last several decades. Audubon magazine had a story on this recently.

    Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, and his website are an excellent resource for east coast plants

    I plant mostly natives, with a few lilacs, peonies, tulips and roses, even as the local bees are crowding out each other on native asters.

    • Hi Mary,

      See my reply to Susan, above. This is an older post, written at a time when the native plant movement was building steam (or maybe I was just learning about it). That discussion has progressed a lot since then.

      Thanks for your feedback!

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