Politically incorrect gardening
The 'native-only' planting trend is sweeping the garden world, but one avid gardener says introduced plants aren't a threat to existing flora.
Hydrangea, purple bearded iris and wild pink flowers. // © Ralph A. Clevenger, Helen Norman, Richard Bloom/Getty Images
This time of year my plants are in overdrive. The dark-leafed weigela bushes are coated with mauve flowers, the peonies are spewing their amazing perfume, pink petals weigh down the 10-foot-tall beauty bush by the fence and the bearded irises with their unreal purple and blue blooms seem like visitors from another world.
In fact, they are. Not a single one of these plants is native to upstate New York, where I garden, or even to this hemisphere.
Call me politically incorrect but I haven't jumped on the non-imported plant trend that has swept parts of the garden world, resulting in catalogs, websites and nurseries dedicated to native trees, shrubs and flowers. In some quarters that makes me a bad person, an unreconstructed Old Order gardener.
Native-plant purists insist that the best way to take care of the Earth is to grow only those things that nature has provided in your region. They say introduced plants — those transported from abroad by early settlers or through the plant industry's ever-eager foraging — may pose a hazard to existing flora. Native plants, they contend, have evolved to be in harmony with their surroundings and demand fewer resources such as water and fertilizer.
"Unlike many non-native plants, native plants ... are hardy, less susceptible to pests and diseases and unlikely to escape and become invasive," says the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, one of many native-plant proponents.
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Douglas Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware, argues that native plants have an important function: They support the insect populations that many birds and other wildlife eat. As development depletes natural habitat, "in too many areas of our country there is no place left for the wildlife but in the landscapes and gardens we ourselves create," he writes in his book "Bringing Nature Home."
True, some introduced plants have been disasters. Kudzu vines, originally from Japan and China, have taken over parts of the South through their rampant growth, pushing out native plants in the way. Multiflora roses, a bush from eastern Asia initially promoted by the U.S. government as a "living fence" for farmers' fields, have seeded themselves so widely they clog up roadsides and the edges of woods in some areas to the point that other plants can't grow.
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I'm not about to grow a non-native plant that's been identified as being that invasive. Years ago I ripped out a perfectly nice burning bush (Euonymus alata) after learning that the Asian species, famed for its flaming fall foliage, has been blamed for spreading wantonly through its seeds. I also recently dug up a bunch of other potentially invasive plants.
No plant should be introduced to the lawn-and-garden world until its backers are certain it won't become a noxious pest. Plant companies didn't always do that in the past.
But the vast majority of imported plants are well-behaved. They have been enjoyed by homeowners and landscapers for decades, if not hundreds of years, without causing problems.
Of course there's nothing wrong with gardeners who want to restrict their palette to native plants. In fact, there are scores of beautiful choices in my part of the country, many of which I grow: native viburnums, redbuds and dogwoods with their spring blooms; Annabelle hydrangeas with their white puff-ball flowers; winterberries, which produce bright red or orange berries in the fall; tall garden phlox; beebalm and echinacea, to name just a few.
But eliminating imported plants from your yard seems akin to other forms of extreme behavior, such as cutting out all the fat in your diet and eating nothing but steamed vegetables. It may be admirable in an idealized sort of way, but to me it seems austere and bleak, a form of garden penance. And also, I have to say, a bit snobbish.
A few years ago, a friend of a friend who was described as an avid gardener came to visit my yard. After looking around for a few minutes he clearly had zero interest. "I grow only native plants," he sniffed.
Yet some of these native-plant Nazis will go on about the heirloom tomatoes and rare purple-skinned potatoes they coddle in their vegetable gardens. But if you start applying the no-imports restriction to edible plants most of the kitchen garden would disappear.
No more tomatoes or potatoes — they came from South America. Rip out the broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage — all European imports. Forget about watermelon — its ancestors came from Africa. And nix the peppers — they hail from Central and South America.
Now imagine a yard or flower bed with no imports. You can't grow tulips, daffodils or dianthus. Plow under your daylilies and dahlias and hostas. Chop down the lilacs, the willows, the peach and pear trees and the flowering cherries. All of them and scores more garden favorites came from other parts of the world, though many date as far back as colonial homesteaders.
And once you go down this path, how far should you travel? Recently, plant experts at North Carolina State University created an Annabelle hydrangea with pink blooms by cross-breeding a regular native Annabelle with a pink wild hydrangea found in the mountains. It is the first time this extremely popular plant has flowers other than white, and the garden industry is heavily promoting it this year under the brand name Invincibelle Spirit.
But is it a native plant? The purists will have to decide.
For hundreds of years, plant explorers have traveled the globe to bring back unusual things you can grow in your yard. And gardeners and the plant industry have a long, storied history of crossbreeding to create new plants. Shunning everything but native plants cuts a gardener off from so much of the fascinating variety in nature — and getting closer to nature seems to be one of the main points of the hobby.
The pendulum swing to "purist" in everything... buy local, go vegan, ban this and ban that, go green (to extremes), and the like... is not Nazi, but more like religiosity and (quite right) snobbish. On the one hand, as mentioned in the article, importing kudzu (I live in the south) was a bad idea. On the other hand, as mentioned in the article, I really like tomatoes. When something like gardening falls prey to the snobbish bigots, we lose the "spice of life", which is, of course, variety. I garden semi-organically...mainly perennials and vegetables/herbs. Why do I say "semi" organically? Because I drop orange peels, etc into the compost. Is there a good chance that those orange peels (that don't grow natively here) might have had a bit of pesticide on them at one point in their life cycle? Probably. Oh... btw... a tip I've never seen... you know Dr. Bonner's soaps? Organic. One tablespoon of peppermint soap per gallon of water... excellent pesticide! (There is my contribution to organic gardening for the day). But you know... some purist will say that's not organic. Actually, it is. My compost, like my pesticide would probably not pass a purist's definitions, but they are close enough. I will continue to cherish my tulips, grow my tomatoes (omg! I even have a couple of HYBRIDS... HORRORS!) I have a 20 x 20 (huge) herb garden with herbs from every part of the world... any I can find. Some are even "invasive"...HORRORS!
I think what this article echoes (at least it echoes my sentiments) is that "politically correct," "purist" "local" and the snobs of the world need to find a little balance. Living like a religious fundamentalist is so constricting and contrary to the zest of life. Moving in the direction of "native" and "local" is fine...making a religion out of it is prison.