More native musings

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Fossil records show ginkgo was once found on the land mass now called North America. Does that make it native?

I’m encouraged by Tony Avent’s recent piece on the native plant debate to address a couple of points, actually open-ended questions, that may inspire more thought on this volatile issue. My hope is that it leads to more collaboration on creating more wildlife habitat, surely a mutual goal with broad support.

Plant lush layers of mannerly plants that provide good habitat, native or not.

Let me attempt to fend off the usual character assassinations that are often the result of any appeal to reconsider the idea that only native plants are “good”. I love wild things, wild areas, and embrace the Gaia principle. Nothing in the world suits me as well as taking a long ramble through the wild areas near my home. I’ve done it since I was a little tomboy, when my mother’s only rule was that I had to be home by the time the automatic security light near the barn came on at dusk. It was also my mother’s guidance that taught me to look. She was an artist when she wasn’t running our farm and she taught me to appreciate the many shades of green, the play of light and shadow, and the patterns to be seen in bark, branches and the wings of birds and dragonflies.

Chinese abelia: a long-blooming, fragrant, low maintenance shrub that provides abundant nectar for our pollinators.

When I bought my 100 acres of rough, recently timbered (and thus cheap) land, someone asked me what I intended “to do” with such a large wild property. “Look at it while it grows,” was my answer…and so it continues, though these days my knees ache, my hip twinges, and I may have to stop and catch my breath partway up a steep slope. I will roam it as long as my legs will carry me.

In all weather but hard driving rain, I look at plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, soil, sky, insects, mushrooms, spider webs, and changes in light. I wonder, and ponder, form questions, and make connections and have revelations. I read, and research and gain from others’ knowledge and thoughts. Slowly, happily, I learn.

So when I began to hear about Doug Tallamy’s assertions that insects had to have native plants to eat, or our birds would die and so on up the food chain, I was puzzled. I saw many insects eating the foliage of non-native plants – in the wild, on the neighboring farms, in my yard, and on the plants in our display gardens at work. Many of the questions I had fielded as a horticulturist dealt with recommendations on how to deal with insects eating people’s plants, most of them, especially in the edible realm, non-native. It seemed to me that numerous denizens of the natural world had made very good use of many introduced plants.

This monarch feeds readily on the lush balloon plant, a member of the milkweed family that happens to hail from Africa.

I also saw many natives that were untouched by insects. Anisetree comes to mind as I have often commented, that the attractive smell of the foliage must not translate to flavor because I have never seen any insect damage on the leaves. Does that make this native plant a “bad” landscape plant, though it provides cover, and anchors soil, as many plants do. Must every plant have foliage that offers insect sustenance? In the wild, that does not seem to be the case.

And, many nativists will make some allowance for those non-native plants that do produce foliage eaten by insects.  Oh yes, they agreed, there are “generalist” insects that will chow down on some non-native plant foliage, but the “specialist” insects will not.

A prime example of a specialist insect is the monarch butterfly, a lovely poster child. Monarch caterpillars will feed only on plants in the milkweed family. This statement is 100% true. It does not, however, disclose that there are many members of the milkweed family, Asclepiadaceae, that are found on other continents and that serve beautifully as monarch caterpillar forage.

 

Fennel, not native, makes a fantastic food source for black swallowtail butterflies.

Each spring, we grow balloon plant Gomphocarpus physocarpus (from southern Africa) from seed for just that purpose. A perennial plant in Zone 8, we treat it as an easily grown annual, and sell it in our plant sales in inexpensive six-packs. Our shoppers have learned to value the tall fast-growing plant that provides enough generous willowy foliage to support numerous monarch caterpillars. We plant them in our display gardens here on the research center along with native milkweeds, several species close by, but these smaller perennial plants are susceptible to crippling infestations of aphids and the leaves are often insufficient to support more than a handful of the little munchers. Often I have carried the demonstrably hungry caterpillars in my hand to the billowing masses of balloon plant where they can continue their caterpillar phase with plenty to eat. If it were not for this “introduced exotic” we would not be nearly as successful at providing for the monarchs.

Another “crop” of monarchs raised on non-native plants as evidenced by this chrysalis ready to burst forth with winged glory.

 

It is of course, quite understandable that they make use of this plant. Anyone of reason understands that the continents we know now were not always distinct separated bodies of land; that many populations of plants, once divided by ocean’s rise, evolved to be only somewhat different. The human (somewhat admirable) need to establish some since of order and understanding created and imposed classifications of these plant families, enough sometimes to be classified as different genera or species, but essentially, at a molecular level, they are still the same plant once in the belly of the insect that could care less that it was not found on this continent…

 

 

 

Aristolochia fimbriata is a pipevine species native to south America, but these pipevine caterpillars don’t discriminate against those south of the border (like some do!)

…or was it, at one time? When I bring up the concept of native to my woody plant classes, I like to pose this question. We know from fossil record that dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides and ginkgo Ginkgo biloba were once found on the land mass we now call North America, but were wiped out by ice ages. Now that we can purchase these plants in nurseries and plant them successfully in our landscapes, are we bringing back a native, or are we introducing an exotic?

When you plant a dawn redwood, are you restoring a lost native?

If one were to say it is an exotic because it wasn’t on this continent when “we arrived”, I can only raise my eyebrows at the arrogance. Who are we to choose that tiny speck of time, legitimized only because it happened to be the plant palette that was here when the first European set boot on the continent? That move introduced the most invasive species ever, the European settler. Who among us will volunteer to clear out, along with kith and kin and return this land to the “natives” (the human species, who by the way, crossed over on Berengia, the Siberian “land bridge” from Asia).

Native is a moving target. Look at what might happen if we pass laws that dictate that we plant only natives and that mandate removal of all non-natives. Where do we draw the line? Is my grandmother’s gardenia contraband? The daffodil bulbs from my other grandmother? Will I be required to rip out my small orchard of apples, pears and figs? Are edibles exempt? What about the crabapples that serve as great pollinators for my apples?

I say we’d do better to bond over using plants that create good habitat, minimize pesticide use, and conserve water and soil. I’m on the Tony team.

Of course, plant some, many, a lot of great natives as well, like this Henry Eilers rudbeckia.
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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. I feel sad that there has to be a debate. I am a native plant nut but I have a traditional perennial bed. Yes, I try to plant mostly natives in most places and to restore natives that used to grow in my part of my county but I don’t feel like everything everywhere has to be a native plant. I feel like encouraging people to plant more natives is good. I feel that discouraging people (and nurseries!) from growing invasives is especially good.

  2. Thank you for this rant. I am so sick of these nativists as it’s such an unnatural concept to declare what is native or what isn’t. Nature learns, including animals, plants and insects, just as we humans do. If a food source appears in a slightly modified edition (non native) then it doesn’t matter and they will chow down on it. I am tired of the hatred towards plants and animals these people espouse.

    • We use energy efficient bulbs and appliances, recycle, take shorter showers, use refillable water bottles, buy local, eat less meat, adjust the thermostat, buy smaller automobiles, do errand batches, use reusable bags, buy in bulk, pay bills online, use e-readers.

      BUT, plant natives? No way.

      • Because the research isn’t supporting the hypothesis that native plants in the garden are providing any overwhelming benefit to nature.

  3. I’m with you Carol. When you look at nature the way you describe, it is abundantly clear that nature has no intention of adhering to a rigid ideology. Nature is going to use the resources available to it. The very practice of gardening begins with the love of plants. To garden, to plant and care for the piece of earth you inhabit multiplies those available resources and multiplies life period. That is enough in and of itself.

    Nature can be in charge of the entomology and varmints department. I like the plants, all kinds of plants. There are more native plants in my 100 acre wood than when I got started because I am a gardener. I like plants.

  4. Balance is best, including if “nativist” is used so should “contrarian non-nativist” be used for the other extreme. To me the latter are as annoying and lack informed consistency.

    Agreed that wildlife will make use and not be harmed by many non-native plants. Yet some of us have been falsely criticized for aspiring to more authenticity via ecoregional natives, including a sense-of-place, by those who cannot be balanced or consistent. Not saying the author here, but rather those others I’ve personally known and endured at times.

    As an LA of 30 years, 25 in a locale where our natural diversity doesn’t provide for certain functions or asthetics (and having nursery “challenges”), I happily use adapted, xeric, and non-invasive species such as evergreen groundcovers, etc. Balance, at least for my region.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  5. Yes, I have his book and heard him talk but saw some points that I did not agree with. That is what life is all about…do your own thinking.

  6. I guess I never realized there was such a heated debate over this. I prefer to use mostly native plants in my own yard and I have my reasons for it. I do also have plants in my garden (some hibiscus) that are cultivated hybrids that not a single bug seems to touch, other than japanese beetles.

  7. The preference for native plants would not be controversial if it were focused on planting natives rather than eradicating non-native plants. Even then, if native plant advocates focused on their own gardens, most people wouldn’t mind when they destroy the non-natives they don’t like. The conflict with native plant advocates occurs when they eradicate landscapes in public parks and open spaces that many people value and the conflict gets heated when pesticides are used for that purpose.
    This particular controversy is similar to many others in American society. There are people who don’t want to vaccinate their children, or have an abortion, or use contraception, etc. But many of those people aren’t satisfied making a personal choice. They demand that everyone make the same choice. And that’s when those who don’t share their viewpoint draw the line.
    Likewise, native plant advocates are welcome to plant whatever they want in their gardens, but once they impose their viewpoint on public lands and they poison our public land in the process, many of us draw the line.
    Thank you for this excellent article that goes deep into the fundamental flaws in nativist ideology….all the way back to Pangaea and the original emergence of plants. It’s a scientific explanation for why insects don’t need native plants and it is bolstered by the personal observations of a professional horticulturalist.

    San Francisco Bay Area, California

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