Ministry Of Controversy

On natives—we’re all alright

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There’s no more surefire way to get everybody all riled up on this site than to talk about native plants—whether or not to use them, how much to use them, who is too obsessed with them, who isn’t obsessed enough, where they work best, and where they work worst. I’ve read many an impassioned comment on these; too often, such comments are riddled with straw men arguments.

Is there a need? Aside from a very few fanatics—and in spite of Doug Tallamy’s arguments for natives, I do not consider him a fanatic in the least—most proponents of natives I know encourage their use. They do not enforce their use, nor can they. Unless certain plants—like ivy in the Pacific Northwest—are banned, or you live in some kind of HOA hell, you can pretty much plant what you want. Nobody is making you plant natives; nobody is making you plant anything.

But, in spite of all the hot air, I find so much satisfaction in my native plants. There’s the Collinsonia canadensis (at top), with its tiny but interesting blooms. Known commonly as horsebalm, this, like many of my natives, provides late summer interest and statuesque foliage. My Eupatorium varieties are starting to bloom now, as well, including the tangentially related blue mistflower.

I’m very pleased by the Clematis virginiana (above), which doesn’t seem to suffer from wilt, like the Sweet Autumn variety, and climbs undaunted through trumpet vine (not a native everyone likes).

This is the time of year, when the lilies are ending and the roses just coming out of pause, that I appreciate natives the most. They’re not spectacular, flower-wise, for the most part, but they add lush foliage at a time when the garden is beginning to harden, and their aggressive tendencies help them survive in my shade- and root-laden urban wilderness.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on August 5, 2014 at 7:30 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.


  1. WRONG Vincent- maybe where you live, but in other parts of the country natives are being foisted upon the gardening community. I can’t plant anything I want in a client’s Malibu garden, it has to go through a code process where my plant list is approved.
    I love planting natives, along with well adapted exotics. But the fact that many who advocate turning back time to a so-called pristine wild place want to take away my right to plant responsibly, well, it makes me angry! And just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
    BOTH natives and well adapted exotics have a place in our planting schemes – invasives, both native and non-native, do not. Super simple, I think.

  2. Vincent, come on now… The term “native Nazi” didn’t come out of a kind warm place. There is overwhelming dialog on the part of nativists that insists that all of us that plant non-natives are Satan’s spawn. I hear it all the time. You hear it, everybody hears it.
    In this very forum I was accused of committing “ecocide” for advocating the planting of non-natives.
    The cranks, as is often the case, have taken over the conversation.

  3. Perhaps Vincent lives in a place where the native plant movement is not so extreme. Or perhaps he is not on the receiving end of the abuse dished out by native plant advocates because he agrees with them.

  4. A couple of years ago the city of Seattle attempted to create a new “green code” that would have mandated 75% natives in any new or replaced landscape. It was so shockingly arbitrary (and so poorly written) that they were forced to withdraw it. Western Washington is a unique place–many natives are understory plants and others are enormous trees. The forest is a beautiful place, but expecting to recreate it to that extent amid streets and buildings was misguided.

  5. I am a proponent of natives…and adaptives…because, quite frankly, it is somewhat impractical to think that a garden or landscape (unless never touched) could be anything other than a mix. Have you ever tried to spec plants for a native only garden…it is really difficult. The availability is just not there. But if a plant has been proven to be hardy, water-wise, and noninvasive (an adaptive) then put those puppies in! As with all things…extremes are dangerous! My 2-cents! ~Julie

  6. Not to throw a wrench into the works, but apparently Christopher C of Outside Clyde has spent major energies trying to eradicate invasive and tenacious Clematic virginiana from his North Carolina garden. I hope you have less trouble with it in your colder region.

  7. I love natives although, like most of us, I’ve come late to the table, only after the Germans co-opted the best of them, gave them proper German names like Feuerverkerei and Flammenspiel, and sold them back to us at exorbitant prices whether in Dollars or in Deutsche Marks. I was already hooked back in my “Back to the Land” period in the seventies when, while cashing in my GI benefits before they expired, I enrolled in whatever class called to me from the slim Concord (WV) catalog, and embarked on a course in botanical nomenclature conducted from the back seat of a sixties era Chevy careening around the crookedest roads on the planet as fast as marginal insanity allowed. It’s said that the roads in West Virginia are so crooked that one regularly gets a good look at one’s own rear license plate, and it’s quite true. No, really. I must say that absorbing the details of the verges at 50 mph seemed a pretty effective way to separate the plant-addicted from the seekers of an easy “A”. Colt’s Foot and Indian Paintbrush seemed almost to scream for my attention. Once alit on the roadside, I needed to be dragged from ogling the Pinxter Flowers or snorting the heavenly scent of Trailing Arbutus. But it wasn’t until a trip to Thailand some years ago that it really sunk in that our natives have significant value beyond their niche in native habitats. To my amazement, I discovered that, in Thailand, one of the most common combinations sold as a temple offering was Mokara Orchids paired with Solidago. Seriously. In fact, the two most common obstacles to negotiating ones way around the Bangkok wholesale flower market were heaps of these orchids in the street and bales of Solidago leaning on the walls. That golden color, apparently, fills a need for the Buddhist faithful that nothing indigenous can, and huge quantities of it are sold in a country where purchasing flowers on a daily basis is commonplace, either for temple or for one’s family “spirit house’ wherein one’s ancestors dwell.
    So, in addition to striving daily to convert everyone in the United States to Buddhism, I now, as a key part of my cut flower business, grow seven different Solidago species which, serendipitously, bloom in perfect succession, and so far I have found florists not just receptive but enthusiastic about each of them. The first is a “canadensis” type that I’ve been too lazy to nail down botanically but has the typical tapered inflorescence that curves to one side. Next, S. rigida, which sells from its “broccoli” stage to full bloom and is clearly a favorite of my customers. That’s followed by S. sempervirens with its broader, shiny foliage (and recently declared unwelcome in Wisconsin by the DNR for committing the sin of successfully colonizing the median of an Interstate Highway (horrors). Next up I believe is S. speciosa, the “golden rod” for which goldenrod is named, a spikier form and very showy. And then there’s a selection/discovered variant/cool plant from Bluebird called Wichita Mountain. I assume it’s a variant of S. speciosa, but they’re not sayin’. Very rhythmic tufts on a spike and beautiful lime green foliage to boot. And last (until this year) has been S. rugosa, the species,and the cultivar “Fireworks”. “Until this year” because I’m not yet sure where my latest “Solidago” will bloom. First year from seed I have two phenotypes of what used to be S. graminifolia but has been reclassified as Euthamia graminifolia (damn those taxonomists!), one from a grower/friend on Block Island, Rhode Island, the other from a Midwestern source, Prairie Moon Nursery. Predictably, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic, with the Block Islander a thrifty, crisp and understated New England plant while the lanky Minnesotan is twice as tall, awkward, slightly disheveled, and would do well to tuck in its shirttails. I’m looking forward to meeting their flowers soon. And also looking forward to your thoughts about converting to Buddhism.

  8. I like native plants too and I encourage everyone to plant whatever they wish in their own gardens. My only objection to the native plant movement is their demand that non-native plants and trees be destroyed on our public lands because of the herbicides needed to accomplish that. Garden Ranters often respond to my objection that Garden Rant is interested only in private gardens. Of course, what people choose to do in their private gardens is not my business. However, Garden Ranters should take into consideration that the native plant movement is also intruding into private gardens.

  9. That is certainly a legitimate exception to my too general statement. I share your concern about the toxicity of pesticides. That’s why I am opposed to the pesticides being used in our public parks for the sole purpose of killing plants which some people do not like. The risks of these pesticides outweighs any theoretical benefit of using them in places called “natural areas.”

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