Save the natives! Eradicate the interlopers! What should a gardener do?

For about the last 20 to 25 years, our appreciation of (and commitment toward) ‘native’ plant species has grown exponentially.  The North American Native Plant Society was founded in 1984 (originally as the Canadian Wildflower Society) and since then, other regional native plant societies, native plant nurseries, research centres, institutes, organizations, chapters and study groups have been created in nearly every state and province in North America (as well as internationally). 
A 'native' landscape?

The idea that naturalized gardens can be highly ornamental is not new.  As long ago as 1870 William Robinson was encouraging gardeners to embrace the idea of ‘the wild garden’.  Much more recently, the concept was really taking off in Germany during the 1980s.  The public garden known as Westpark (planted in 1983) demonstrated this new, wild style of planting where indigenous plants (some European, others North American), including both flowering perennials and grasses, were unashamedly showcased; this new aesthetic became known as the ‘New German Style’.  The effect of visiting such a garden where bold yet loose plantings showed natural movement and shifting colour was described by Stephen Lacy in this 2002 article published in the American gardening magazine called Horticulture. 

Prairie meadow; Westpark Garden, Munich

Earlier in 1977, pioneering landscape architects  Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden had formed a partnership and began to embrace this developing style.  Van Sweden’s book, Gardening with Nature, described this new paradigm and its publication brought it to the North American gardener in 1997.  What was remarkable about this style (now referred to as the ‘New American Garden’ style), was the predominant use of species that had not been previously recognized as ornamentals, at least not on this continent. 

This new style gave legitimacy to many native North American meadow plants like Eupatorium maculatum (Joe-Pye weed), Panicum virgatum (Switch grass), Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod) as well as many, many others.

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But, at the same time, there was also a subtle, underlying ideology gradually making an appearance among ‘native’ plant advocats; that is, that ‘native’ plants are the only rightful plants in the landscape and anything else is ‘alien’ and quite likely, invasive. 

The emotional call was sounded to ‘Save the native plants!’   Not only are these plants being threatened by development, clear cutting, indiscriminate chemical use and lack of perceived ornamental value, but they are also being choked out of their habitat by alien, and more often than not, invasive alien species.   

Can this be true?  Are alien invaders taking over our wild spaces and decimating the populations of plants that were here before us?  Are all introduced species bad?  Are all native plants good?

Even Lorraine Johnson, a leader in the crusade to plant native species, has moderated her stance (as evident in this Canadian Gardening article):  “For those who choose to go the last route (i.e. plant a mix of natives and exotics), or who are interested in beginning to experiment with natives in a predominantly non-native garden, no apologies are necessary.  Wield that trowel with pride.”

The movement toward planting ‘native’ species in gardens is, I think, rooted in our legitimate desire to loosen our death-grip on ‘designed’ and cultivated spaces and to garden more naturalistically (not to mention, sustainably).  We now want to encourage nature to re-establish itself in areas that have long been sprayed, sterilized, over-run, cut down or sheared beyond recognition.  It remains true, though, that gardeners love to impose a garden, which often means making a space that feels like we’re in total control – we have chosen how and what things will grow and delight in our creation. 

Gardeners, after all, often become plant breeders or plant designers, or if not, then plant collectors.  The more striking the colour or the shape, the more appealing it is!   But there is, I think, a naturalist and ecologist in most good gardeners; we realize that naturally occurring species are perhaps some of the most glorious plant creations.  As we become more experienced, we also realize how little we really know and how we can never really control anything in the garden.  We are beginning to understand we can’t and shouldn’t kill all garden pests because if there are no aphids then there are no ladybugs to rely on them for food, andon it goes down the chain.  And we’re finally beginning to embrace that nourishing the soil is the basis for a healthy growing environment and a thriving ecosystem.

Trillium erectum

In his 1991 book called Second Nature:  A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan describes his hilarious battle with a woodchuck (aka groundhog) and other battles he faced with his country garden.  He realizes:

“The forest, I now understand, is “normal”; everything else — the fields and meadows, the lawns and pavements and, most spectacularly, the gardens — is a disturbance, a kind of ecological vacuum which nature will not abide for long…”

And he goes on to say:

“And garden plants are sitting ducks…They stick out in the natural landscape like rich kids in a tough neighbourhood.”

Perhaps native plant enthusiasts are simply naturalists whose gardening aesthetic is more ideological than visual.  After all, native plants or wildflowers are often not the showy garden flowers that we crave; they are often shy and subtle and in many cases, ephemeral.  It is perhaps a journey of appreciation that leads us to discover these species and appreciate them for the un-tampered plants that they are.

I love the example that Thomas Rainer gives while discussing the myths surrounding native plants in his thoughtful blog Grounded Design.   He describes walking through the local botanic garden with his girlfriend after coming from a university class on native plants.  Seeking out the native woodland planting, he oohs and aahs over the dogtooth violet which she barely acknowledges and then, when they reach the tulip planting in full bloom, she exclaims how beautiful it is!  From a landscape architect’s point of view, his call is:   “Listen up native plant advocates:  until native plants are shown to be beautiful, they will never be fully embraced by the American public.”

Forest floor with dogtooth violets (Erythronium sp.)

There are several landscaping and plant nursery companies who have found their niche regenerating our natural spaces, where ‘native’ species are replanted after the soil and surrounding landscape has been analyzed so appropriate ones are chosen to help recreate a fully functional ecosystem.  Acorus Restoration is one.  I think this is the best solution for disturbed spaces that have to be replanted; it makes the most sense to re-establish goldenrod, asters, joe-pye weed rather than to plant magnolias and hydrangea.  There are also many that cater to the regular gardening public, encouraging them to choose these regional species rather than imported ones for their own private gardens.

In a correspondence with Philip Fry, artist and owner of Old Field Garden & Wildflower Nursery, he describes his reasons for planting ‘natives’ (in his words, plants that have a ‘long record of being here’) thus:

“…we wish to provide HISTORICAL CONTINUITY to the bio-social spaces in which we live. The plant species “from here” create a tie with the past of where we live, and this contributes to our identity (my emphasis). That is an anthropocentric argument. We might also agree that our use of the land requires that we take responsibility for all the beings that inhabit the land – our presence and use demands (that’s a strong, ethical word) that we keep a place for the species that have been here longer than us.”

Canadian columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) at Old Field Garden, Ontario

I like this idea of historical continuity and personal identity; how the plants that have adapted to life in our region should be important to us because they share a place with us in this geographical ecosystem that includes us, after all!

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Many native plant groups believe that a native plant is one that “existed in a particular area prior to European settlement.”  But this, as I have come to understand, is too simplistic a view.

Pollan (in the same book) describes the debate around what to do after a stand of two-hundred year old white pines near his home in Connecticut had been ravaged by a storm.  How does one re-generate such a national treasure?  He asks,

“What is the real state of nature in Cathedral Pines?  Is it the way the forest looked before the settlers arrived?  We could restore that condition by removing all traces of European man.  Yet isn’t that a rather Eurocentric (if not racist) notion of wilderness?  We now know that the Indians were not the ecological eunuchs we once thought.  They too left their mark on the land:  fires set by Indians determined the composition of the New England forests and probably created that “wilderness” we call the Great Plains.  For true untouched wilderness we have to go a lot further back than 1640 or 1492.  And if we want to restore the landscape to its pre-Indian condition, then we’re going to need a lot of heavy ice-making equipment (not to mention a few woolly mammoths) to make it look right.”

File:Pinus strobus Syvania.jpg
Pinus strobus, Katherine Lake. Ottawa National Forest, Syvania Wilderness, Michigan: Photo by Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service

If one wants to be a purist about it, how far back does one go?   

Many of these original growing conditions cannot be recreated in the span of a season; an ancient forest (whether evergreen, deciduous or a combination of the two) with the towering shade it casts, the centuries of composted leaves and debris, the combination of species making up its understory and the plants that carpet the ground – all of this is a symphony of inter-related plants.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to make a small version of this in our city backyards.

But is it really this simple?  Before European settlers came and began cutting, burning and clearing in order to farm, and even before the native peoples that preceded them, there were other forces at work for millions of years shaping and shifting ecosystems.  They weren’t formed once and then remained unchanged; climate changes, glacial paths, droughts and floods, natural selection through insect infestations and disease all acted to create and re-create environments. 

Fry believes that it’s not so much time that distinguishes a ‘native’ plant but space; so this kind of planting should be more properly considered regional or according to a plant’s range, so that the species chosen to be planted belong within and have adapted to that habitat.  He also has this thoughtful conclusion about our effects on changing plant habitats:

“…I think the answer is that we must participate in the change that seems inevitable by monitoring and fostering plants as the change happens. No set rules, only a very open examination of change and its impacts and an experimental attitude towards the adaptations that will be required. This is why keeping good genetic banks (from which adaptation comes) of species that have “been around” for a long while is very important. At the very least it will help us to see what survives and what doesn’t and suggest how we should respond. I think it is time to think of “transitional” rather than “natural” gardening as long as we keep in mind that our first responsibility is to the “biospace” that we have invaded and have so deeply modified.”

Herein, I believe, is the answer.  Thankfully it doesn’t involve being a plant dictator.

1.  Stay away from plants that are too vigorous to contain, whether they are native or introduced species;

2.  Choose plants that are appropriate for the environment in which you’re gardening;

3.  Encourage as many native plants as you can accommodate;  

4.  Commit to using natural methods of pest and disease control;

5.  Encourage a healthy ecosystem by recycling plant debris back into the soil (i.e. compost) and don’t over-fertilize.

Any thoughts?

P.S.  I’ll talk a bit next time about invasive plants, introduced pests, and other quandries.

2 thoughts on “Save the natives! Eradicate the interlopers! What should a gardener do?”

  1. Hey Ailsa, your blog is becoming an essay. It took me five minutes to read the this one! But the photographs are excellent.

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