Native vs. “Native”


For my podcast and radio program this week (they’ll post on Wednesday), I interviewed Uli Lorimer, the Director of Horticulture at the Native Plant Trust.  Uli first attracted attention as the curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s native flora garden, which he helped to expand into one of the finest, most innovative displays of natives in the United States.  A year ago, Uli moved to the Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wildflower Society) where he serves as Director of Horticulture, supervising the Trust’s 45-acre woodland garden and its nursery operation in western Massachusetts.  When I spoke to him, I asked Uli about the difficulties I have found in sourcing truly native, “native” plants.

I enclosed native in quotation marks because, as Uli confirmed, many plants sold as natives are not actually native to the region where the customer gardens.   Nursery people commonly apply the term rather loosely.  So for example a plant may be sold as a native because it is native to North America, even though it is not native to your region.   That’s fairly easy to discern with a quick look at reference works online or in books.  What’s much more difficult to establish is if a plant that does grow naturally in your area came from a reasonably local and adapted strain.  A species with a broad geographic range, for example, may be indigenous as a species to your area but the one for sale may be sourced from a very different ecoregion with a significantly different climate and conditions.  If that is the case, the “native” you buy may actually be poorly adapted to the conditions in your garden.

Uli also spoke to a topic that has recently become a concern to me.   I plant natives in large part because of the benefits they provide to wildlife.  I also want to help bolster populations of native plants.  For both reasons, I prefer to deal with wild-type, seed-grown plants.  Yet such plants are difficult to find because the nursery industry, as it is presently constituted, cannot cope with their diversity.  Wholesale growers prefer to grow uniform and compact, cloned plants, which lend themselves to industrial growing processes.

That practice takes the genetic diversity out of the plants, greatly decreasing the adaptability of the resulting population.  This is a serious concern during an era of climate change, when adaptability is especially important.   Reducing plants to clones can also markedly decrease a plant’s value to wildlife.

There are some nurseries that grow plants from ethically collected seeds and I think it behooves us as conscientious gardeners to patronize them to the extent that they can provide us with plants adapted to our region.  I also think that we must demand more information about the plants we buy.  The provenance of the plants we are offered must become standard information on the label.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Spot on, thank you. I am putting in a very large native hedgerow and had a very difficult time sourcing plants. We can only keep clamoring for the plants we want.

  2. For those of us who want to grow native, what is one to do? Yhere is a native nursery an hour north and another near Ithaca. Are these native enough. My Trillium grandiflorum fro a creek a hill over. That and a few others rescued from local sites and those on our property are the only “true” natives. My bloodroot and Pawpaws came from northern Indiana. Most came from the appalachians. But thrive they do. I have thousands of bloodroot, hundreds of twinleaf and Virginia bluebells that are as happy as could be.

  3. I am very fortunate because I live a stone’s throw from Nasami Farm, grows and sells native plants. I am a member and have been shopping there for years. Their plants are beautiful and provide the assurance of being good for pollinators and other creatures. I’ll be picking up this year’s choices this week.

  4. Our local soil and water conservation district has an annual plant sale which features natives (mostly shrubs and trees, although this year they introduced a milkweed native to the region), sourced from local/regional growers. They are really reasonably priced—a couple bucks for a bare root plant. The idea is to encourage reestablishment of local native ecosystems to our valley and watershed, which has been farmed and logged for almost 2 centuries. I think there might be many communities that could do something like this.
    On another note, I’ve been spending some of my “stay at home” time wandering my property with an eye towards identifying the natives that are here, and discovered several, including a species of miniature lupine I’d never noticed before, which I will collect a small amount of seed from to spread into other appropriate areas on my property, and perhaps my neighborhood.


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