Another voice in the native debate

This nonnative isn’t for everybody but I still keep it around.

As clashes of extreme views continue to dominate the national political discourse, we have been noting how even the gardening world has fallen into polarized debates. Back in 2007, I interviewed Doug Tallamy, the well-known entomologist/advocate for native plants. But even he has always admitted that he’d be happy with gardeners using a higher percentage of natives. “I’m all for compromise,” is what he told me the last time we talked.

But how can you address compromise in a meme? Because memes are the way a lot of gardening directives are spread these days. I regularly see posts with pictures of butterflies stamped with simple one-or-two-liners urging people to plant native to support pollinators. These are well-meaning but they aren’t discussions and they don’t include any real data. They work, however.

It was recently brought to my attention that a few months ago North Carolina’s Wake County was considering a ban on all but native plants for municipal (not private) plantings. This action by county government got a prompt response from another North Carolina resident, Tony Avent, of Plant Delights. It appeared in his enewsletter to Plant Delight customers. Here are some excerpts:

To call a plant native, you must consider nature as static (never changing), and then pick a random set of dates that you consider to be “ideal.” Most of the plants currently considered native to Wake County today, actually speciated tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago. The current conditions are nothing like the conditions then.

As for the superiority of native plants for both adaptability and for supporting pollinators, that is another great myth, which, despite its popularity in the media, has no basis in good research. A new book in the works detailing extensive research and pollinator counts from the South Carolina Botanic Garden will show that plants native to a specific region are neither favored by or required by native pollinators.

How about let’s embrace all diversity and create a better habitat for all, and, for goodness sakes, include plants that are currently “native” in our region.

Is Avent writing the “new book” he mentions? I hope so. It will certainly add an informed voice to this ongoing discussion. At least it won’t be another meme. (It should be noted that the word “native” appears prominently throughout the PDN selections.)

Personally, I feel the native plant movement has raised awareness in a beneficial manner. As long as there continues to be plenty of room for compromise.

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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. I find it hard to believe this statement will hold up: “plants native to a specific region are neither favored by or required by native pollinators.” If you just look at oligolectic bees there’s a problem.

    The core issue around native plants has to do with human privilege and supremacism. We want gardens to encapsulate our freedom to do what we want all of the time. That traditional thinking is at odds with the reality of mass extinction and climate change — everything we do affects the web. Sure, plant what you want, it’s your garden and we don’t have a plant police (yet), but understand our choices have real impacts.

    In the end the native plant conversation / debate isn’t really about native plants — it’s about confronting how we’ve altered the planet for our benefit and the realization that there are some negative consequences to so brazingly privileging ourselves over nature. The more we come to understand forb / fauna relationships the more we’re forced to confront how and why we garden in some radical — and uncomfortable — ways. This is good for horticulture, no matter which side of the fence you’re on.

  2. To take the argument one step further, would nativars be ok? Are variegated native plants ok or not? What about double flowered plants (which may prevent pollinators that use single flowering varieties). What about natives bred with nonnatives for disease resistance? I.e. dogwoods.

  3. Honestly, I don’t see how a philosophy of eliminating “human privilege” is workable. Would you choose not to “privilege” yourself over nature if it meant intentionally succumbing to disease, drought, deadly predators? Nature isn’t just songbirds and prairies. In this philosophy, does an ant colony have as much value as a community of human beings? If you actually believe this, you would not be able to function as a normal person who owns a house, drives a car, participates in the economy, or even just moves through the environment.

    It seems to me that the better way to solve environmental problems is through human innovation, not by pretending that humans aren’t or shouldn’t be the dominant species on the planet.

  4. Ooohhhh! I like this idea. I have often wondered at what point a plantt species is considered ‘native’ given their movement through human or natural means. Could any species that can survive generations without human interference potentially native?

  5. I’ve read Benjamin Vogt’s book, and I *hear* his plea, but it’s not as easy to find and grow natives as it seems. I also subscribe to Tony Avent’s e-newsletter, and I hope he’s right about diversity so that I’m off the hook!

    Despite the stance that “natives can be purchased anywhere”, I am limited as to what natives I can get my hands on. (Does anyone else have this problem?) For example, the local chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) recently set up shop at a conference. I’ve purchased from them previously, but they only offer the same five natives, and I have all five. One other person grows natives in my town, but she now no longer sells them. (She used to make a run to Austin-3 hours away-to buy her natives because she couldn’t find them locally.) I’ve ordered native seeds, but they’ve been a gamble where many didn’t germinate, and shipping is expensive.

    Frankly, most people here aren’t interested in natives, so there’s no demand. All of this to say, I grow a mix of natives/non-natives and probably always will.

    • Laura, I have heard this from other Texas-based gardeners, though–it’s a such a big state so don’t want to generalize. We are very lucky here in Western New York, that way.

  6. The City of Victoria in western Canada just announced that it’s iconic Japanese cherry trees (well photographed and a mainstay of blossom festivals) will gradually be replaced by native tree species. Native plantings will be the go to for all city owned gardens.

    In an ironic aside, the cherry trees were originally gifted by our Japanese communities, and aside from the historic connotations of the gift, they were doubly welcomed as the existing native trees damaged and lifted pavement.

    Victoria is also known for it’s large and exquisite hanging summer baskets. Look forward to seeing how they plan to reformat those….

  7. All the comments to the ‘Another Voice in the Native Debate’ seem to have disappeared since this afternoon. There were three when I added mine, though I never saw it posted; figured on checking back later. Whether the problem is technical or editorial, it’s frustrating to put effort into reading or writing responses only to have them vanish. Best wishes if the problem is technical.

    • Sorry about that! The comments DO appear on a PC, though not on mobile. I’ve contacted our technical support team about the problem, and thanks for letting us know.

    • Susan the commenting here has been a problem for several years running. That is a big reason why I disappeared. If I post my blog address in that box, the comment goes to an error message. If that is not going to work, remove it. The captcha is a whole other aggravation.

      Reading the Rant tonight, the recent comments in the side bar is fluctuating between live time and this morning. Going to your current Tallamy post the comments might or might not show up. I can find them by entering that post if a go through a current comment from the side bar, if that is showing.

      Bottom line is your comments set up is whack.

  8. They’re back! Yay. I’ll try once more with yesterday’s vaporizer comment:
    Avent is an accomplished plantsman and nursery owner, but he’s not a model of intellectual honesty or tone in discussions of environmental issues.
    He may focus on pollinators because many of them do use both native and non-native flowers (something already widely known and acknowledged, so the forthcoming SC book is unlikely to break much new ground).

    But that flexibility is not found with host plants, the food for insects’ larval stages: the vast majority of insects are specialists, unable to use more than one or a few plants. And some host plants are more crucial than others — such as the ones that support hundreds of different critters, and those that are the sole host for endangered fauna. It’s probably quite possible to put together plantings of Wake County natives that are as useless to local fauna as a collection of introduced plants.

    ‘Natives only’ is just not a helpful framework for planning public plantings. Much more so is a focus on *function*: What plants, and what maintenance/management plan, will best support the full range of local life over their full life cycles and over the whole year? (while also meeting the needs of the site).

  9. Thanks for your refreshing perspective on this timely topic.

    It’s also helpful to differentiate between restoration work where using a palette of indigenous natives is vital and “designed landscapes” where the goal is to provide an aesthetic experience as well as a purposeful variety of ecological services to boost biodiversity. For the latter, it turns out you can actually heighten the ecological benefits of plantings by using a mixed palette of native and non-native plants.

    What?! Well, to quote leading-edge ecologist James Hitchmough from University of Sheffield in his recent masterwork ‘Sowing Beauty’, “What’s important for pollinating insects is the quality of the supply of pollen and nectar and duration of the supply (known as the the supermarket effect: are you open 24/7 or do you close at 5?) For insects that are not pollinators, the critical factor is the degree of spatial complexity of the vegetation, but again not necessarily naturalness or nativeness… Many books aimed at encouraging people to adopt a natives-only perspective in their gardens to save nature are political polemics masquerading as ecological truth.”

    To which I’d add, not just books…. also memes.

    The supermarket effect and your planting design palette are closely linked. Lastly, if you want to provide host plants for specific insects like ogoletic bees, that can also be part of your more balanced approach.

    How’s that for a working compromise?

    • Never any need to apologize for posting on-topic info or opinion that you feel is important. We don’t expect agreement and we want people to say what they want to say.

  10. I doubt Avent’s statement is entirely true, “plants native to a specific region are neither favored by or required by native pollinators.” But another statement sounds right-on, “To call a plant native, you must consider nature as static”…”pick a random set of dates…” All that echoes my unconventional coursework to earn my college degree, plus more learnin’ since as a practitioner.

    Even if I could live 500 years, local ecologies might show they’re more static within a typical range of climate, and therefore it’s practical to first exhaust natives as the staple in gardens.

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