Designing Landscapes: The unwarranted hype surrounding native plants

By James Young

Part 1 of this series was about love and good feelings for native plants. In part 2, hold on to your garden pants, there’s going to be a bit of a native plant smackdown. In this article, the unwarranted hype surrounding planting natives will be body-slammed in a gardener-on-gardener slugfest. When it’s all over, just remember we’re all on the same side.

The Native Plant Movement has been gaining steam for a while now. Let’s call it NaPMo for short. NaPMo is about planting native plants in our gardens and public places instead of non-native plants.

Non-native plants are those brought into the region from other habitats. They’re immigrants. I’m calling them “immigrants” not only because it is a correct term but because the parallels with the current controversy over human immigration into the USA are interesting. NaPMo generally perceives immigrant plants as either harmful or simply not as good as native plants.

Wouldn’t you know it, the native conifers do the work of setting the scene and the immigrant Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica from China) comes in to steal the show! The nerve of those immigrants! (Photo from the Bloedel Reserve, WA.)

 

First of all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with planting native plants in your garden. That is not what this article is about. Go ahead and plant a native Western Skunk Cabbage. It will not attract a skunk menace to your neighborhood. Planting a Lady Fern will not give you lady problems. Planting an Elderberry Bush will not bring an army of Hoverounds to your door. Unless, you’re making wine out of those elder berries, that may attract the senior rabble bent on getting elderberry wasted. In that case, I say ‘Bottoms Up!’ for those who can still lift them.

So to be clear: planting natives is just great.

The problem with NaPMo is the unrealistic claims that are being made about the advantages of going native. They are practically giving native plants super horticultural powers. They might as well sell the plants with a big red ‘S’ plastered across the plant pot. Reading some NaPMo claims, you might get the impression these plants will save our ecosystems, bring world peace, raise the dead and wash your car too.

Many of these claims are overstated. If you plant natives expecting Super Plant you might just get it but it will be permanently frozen in the guise of Clark Kent. In fact, if you look into it deeply enough, you will find that immigrant plants are often the ones who deserve the red “S.”

I’m not making a political statement here. These are the facts: Immigrants can often contribute in ways natives can’t.

Human Immigrants

If these were human immigrants we were talking about, NaPMo claims would be equivalent to saying natives are superior to immigrants because they know how to speak the language, know the customs and culture, and are more invested in the interests of their home country. Therefore, they contribute more to society than immigrants. They would say immigrants just use up resources meant for natives and take our jobs.

Yes, in some cases this is true. But clearly it isn’t always true.

For example, it’s true you can find immigrants who can’t speak English, hampering their ability to operate in and contribute to society. However, you can also find very poorly spoken Americans. Just go to Burien.

You could even say a British immigrant speaks better English than your average American. This despite the fact they often confuse words. For example, for all y’all British out there, newsflash: A boot is something you wear on your foot, not the trunk of your car. Also, Lou is a guy’s name and has nothing to do with toilets unless Lou is a plumber. And don’t get me started about my Aunt Fanny’s fanny pack.

Am I biased in favor of human immigration then?

Well, no, immigrants place downward pressure on wages and pricing in the landscape industry; I personally feel that. They take jobs away from natives like me. I have reason to be downright angry at these immigrants.

However, when looking at the net effect of immigration I can’t help but recall some great immigrants like Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Isaac Asimov, and that’s just a few from the first letter of the alphabet. The Manhattan Project and Space Program were full of immigrants and first-generation Americans. Where would we be if the first atom bombs were produced by Nazi Germany instead of America? Who in the world would have air superiority today without the contribution of immigrant engineers and scientists? Where would Cheech be without his Chong (immigrant from Alberta, eh)?

On the whole, I think you would have to say that immigration, specifically legal immigration, is a net positive for our country. Especially if you consider that everyone in America is an immigrant except for the Native Americans. Let’s just be sure to filter who we choose to let into our country; more Albert Einsteins, less murderers, drug dealers and cheats.

Back to the Plant Immigrants

How does this apply to plants? NaPMo makes eerily similar claims that native plants are superior because they have adapted to the region. And like the human argument, it ain’t necessarily so.

Let’s look at the biggest myths about native plants.

Myth #1: Planting native plants in our cities will restore our native habitat.

Much of NaPMo seems motivated by a desire to restore the original native habitat. That’s an honorable goal. Much of the reasoning behind NaPMo is based on the assumption that because native plants evolved here, they will automatically grow better here and contribute to native ecosystems better. This relies on the assumptions that the areas we now inhabit are the same as the habitats native plants evolved in (our city gardens hardly fit the qualifications of native habitat) and also that an immigrant plant could never contribute to our ecosystem like a native. These are both bad assumptions.

The biggest assumption made by NaPMo is that immigrant plants will destroy our native ecology. It’s a compelling argument that weedy immigrant plants can escape our gardens and out-compete natives in the wild areas of Washington. In essence, they destroy wild native habitats. We can see weedy immigrants taking over large areas of native habitat. It’s not a hidden problem. But is it true they are destroying the ecosystem? The fact is there hasn’t been one documented case in North America of a native plant going extinct because of immigrant invaders.

Here’s the thing though: What ultimately makes a myth out of native habitat restoration is that the deterioration of our native habitat is happening because of human development destroying native habitat an ever increasing amount. It’s not because of the immigrant plants we have imported. It’s the population growth and the need for development that is the real cause. To correct any problem you have to address the real root cause.

UK artist Martin Langford’s piece, "A Walk in the Country."

When I look UK artist Martin Langford’s piece, “A Walk in the Country,” I can’t help but recall a passersby’s critique of one of my newly finished gardens. He walked past and simply said: “Needs more native plants.” I have to say, it is not the contents of our gardens that are the culprits. The solution proposed by this passing critic, to a question that was not even properly asked, is unacceptable. Arguing that native plants are the solution to a vaguely defined problem about city gardens and habitat loss is like saying Martin Langford’s “Country” would be saved if only the plants were natives. (Prints are available on his website.)

So as this passing critic walked comfortably down the concrete sidewalk, crossing the concrete street where a local stream used to run and native plants used to abound, in the middle of the Northwest’s most populous city, no doubt to his 2,000-plus-square-foot house, I wondered if the irony of his statement ever occurred to him. I admit I was too hapless and dumb at the statement to come up with a properly scathing retort before he was out of earshot.

Myth #2: Native plants are easier to grow and less demanding than immigrant plants.

Here’s a list of native plant advantages I’ve gathered from various NaPMo sources:

Native Plants:

  • Do not require fertilizers.
  • Are resistant to pests so they use less pesticide.
  • Are drought tolerant so they use less water.
  • Help reduce air pollution.
  • Provide shelter and food for wildlife.
  • Promote biodiversity.
  • Require very little long-term maintenance if they are properly planted and established.

Are these true? The answer is: It ain’t necessarily so.

Actually, if you look at this list they very well could be describing the weediest immigrants: Scot’s Broom, Japanese Knotweed, Purple Loosestrife, Himalayan Blackberry, English Ivy and Butterfly Bush.

If you look closer at the NaPMo claims you will find inherent contradictions in them.

How is a native plant more drought tolerant when much of our original Northwest habitat was once wetland? A native wetland plant has adapted to a habitat of abundant water. How is it going to suddenly become drought tolerant when planted in an urban garden? That’s like transplanting a native Hawaiian to Arizona and telling him “Surf’s up!” It’s a bad joke. It doesn’t make sense.

How are natives more pest resistant due to adaptation when the local fauna has also adapted over time to attack these same native plants? If this were an evolution death match, it’s best to bet on the contestant quickest to adapt. Generally these are the pests: fungi, bacteria, viruses, insects, etc; the organisms with shortest life cycles.

The truth is some of the most pest-resistant plants are those that are new to the region – the pests haven’t adapted to recognize or attack the new plants. A good example is the Korean Dogwood (Cornus kousa) vs. our native Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). It’s hard to find a Pacific Dogwood that isn’t touched by disease; on the other hand, the Korean Dogwood is largely immune.

One of the more outrageous claims is that natives promote biodiversity. By definition, an immigrant plant has different DNA. Saying natives promote biodiversity is like saying transplanting more Woodway residents into Edmonds would increase ethnic diversity.

And so on. The list of NaPMo advantages begins to lose its shine.

Myth #3: Natives are any plants growing here before the settlers arrived.

The definition of native plants isn’t so straightforward to begin with. Just who are the natives anyway?

Before the last ice age, there was a much greater diversity of plant life in the Pacific Northwest. For example, today the Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) is considered an immigrant to this region, brought over from China and Japan. Yet, the Ginkgo used to be a native tree here before the glaciers of the last Ice Age wiped them out. Need proof? Just visit the Ginkgo Petrified Forest in Eastern Washington. There you will see the hillside is dotted with petrified Ginkgos that used to live in the Pacific Northwest millions of years ago, preserved by mud and lava flows. Is the Ginkgo tree native or an immigrant?

Second, where do you draw the line at a native region?

If you took the native Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanum) and planted it in your garden it would likely die very quickly. That is unless you live in a swamp. This is because its native habitat is riparian areas like a wetland or streamside. Your urban lot may be 20 yards from a stream but completely dry and stripped of topsoil. In this case, isn’t this plant ‘native’ when planted streamside but ‘immigrant’ when planted 20 yards away? It turns out ‘native’ habitat might come down to the particular square yard you’re talking about at the moment.

There’s a tendency to apply the term ‘native’ to entire regions like the Pacific Northwest. But, is a native forest understory plant going to grow well in a suburban lot where the trees have been clear-cut and the soil stripped of forest duff? Is a native conifer from the Cascade Mountains going to grow well when taken from a high conifer forest down to sea level and subjected to year round warmer temperatures? Are Eastern Washington Cougars going to thrive in an Apple Bowl when placed alongside Western Washington Huskies? The answer is heck no. Or at least, it ain’t necessarily so.

Nature’s Ultimate Goal?

If we take a broader look at Nature, we can see that her ultimate goal is for greater abundance of life, greater quality of life, and greater diversity of life. We can trace this back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Used to be this big blue ball wasn’t so hospitable to the likes of us oxygen breathers. It’s amazing that the first forms of life changed the very atmosphere to make possible the existence of every single form of life that walks, swims, flaps or limps after a self-induced landscaping injury, on the Earth today? It’s true. The smallest forms of life created the atmosphere that gradually allowed more and more life, and more diversity of life to come into existence in a progression. That is truly amazing.

With this big picture perspective, we find that immigrant plants definitely have a place in our lives as long as they forward these ultimate goals of Nature: Greater abundance, quality and diversity.

If we want to save native habitats, truly want to save them and not take ineffective whiffs at the problem, we need to confront the real problem: human development and population growth.

So when we go about our gardens, think about the abundance and diversity you want to bring to your slice of the world. The loss of natural habitat is a big concern to all of us, but the burden of restoration should not fall on the neighborhood gardener. That concern must be concentrated at a higher level. We need to think bigger and with greater intellectual integrity at the problems we face today.

In conclusion, don’t go blaming habitat loss on the petunias.

James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscapes in Edmonds.

 

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3 Comments

  1. For a great example of appropriate Native plants in a garden setting, please visit the Edmonds Native Plant Demonstration Garden. It is located at the entrance of the Willow Creek Hatchery off Hwy 104 at 95 Pine Street.

    The garden was created by volunteers from Edmonds Backyard Wildlife Habitat project, Pilchuck Audubon, People for Puget Sound and Washington Native Plant Society. The process of creating and maintaining the garden is a key component of the Edmonds Wildlife Habitat Community Habitat Certification status.

    The demo garden has been put together as a resource for community members who are interested in creating backyard habitat. There are plenty of examples of native plants that do not require the type of wetland conditions described in the Skunk Cabbage example above. Many of these not only look great, but also serve as a food and shelter for the birds and small mammals that are native to the area.

    Better yet, please join us at some of our community work parties and maybe you will discover that the process of creating and enjoying a native backyard habitat is more of a pleasure than a burden. Of particular interest to the author, most of our work parties involve blue wheelbarrows!

  2. James,

    Right place, right plant also applies to native plants. I also agree that some immigrants are bug free but that is because nothing can eat them. This is not necessarily good feature. We need insects to feed our terrestrial birds. There is not longer enough native habitat to support our birds. Almost all nesting terrestrial birds eat insects, in their various stages, while feeding their young. They need the protein. Even hummingbirds eat insects. The birds will also keep the insects in check.

    We need to provide more habitat in our gardens and that means more natives. Douglas Tallamy points out in Bringing Nature Home, that insects are the bottom of the food chain, when nesting, for most terrestrial birds. His scientific studies that show how poorly immigrant plants can be utilized by native insects.

    I believe everyone interested in habitat and native plants should read Tallamy’s book.

  3. Dear Mr. Young,
    Your blog article would have been far more informative if you had elected to spend a little more time researching what local programs are doing to educate people about habitat and native plants and provided a balanced view of natives/nonnatives rather than dwelling on your “immigrant” analogy. I have seen another commercial landscaper/plant salesman use a similar approach: if they spread, non-natives are the “new natives”, just like the pilgrims were! I’m not sure Native Americans appreciate those comparisons.

    First, most of us who speak on the subject realize it is difficult to plant an urban yard entirely in natives due to size constraints and potential conflicts with utilities. We do not damn non-native plants, but recommend thoughtful selection to avoid problems: watch out for invasives like vinca that just haven’t made the noxious weed list yet, identify responsible sources that aren’t buying from countries with poor worker/environmental protection,select plants appropriate for yards and local wildlife, and idendtify plants that won’t need so much fertilizer and water since yard runoff is one of the contributors to Puget Sound water quality problems.

    And we are plainspoken about the limitations of native plants: some are drain seekers (aspense, bigleaf maple, willows) bomb-droppers, spread like crazy in the right conditions, etc. We don’t want people using natives in their yards and getting turned off. We tell people to buy from responsible sources that don’t illegally harvest from the wild. We tell them natives now carry some imported diseases, like the white pine blister rust carried by Ribes family plants.

    What you miss in your post is not just this balance, but some of the problems of introduced plants. I live in a riparian area where knotweed, butterfly bush, himalayan blackberry, loosestrife and even ivy are trying to take over. No one is claiming these plants have snuffed out a native, but they cover a large area in monocultures that result in bank destabilization and provide limited habitat value. You are looking for an absolute effect of non-natives on natives, whereas the problem is truly related to large local areas losing habitat not just to people but also to overwhelming monocultures (this can even be a problem with natives, when salmonberry or spirea become a jungle). The plant import industry has brought in invasives, pests and diseases that have cost this country billions in economic loss from devastation of native populations with commercial value, resulting environmental damage and plant removal. Fighting invasives is a huge economic cost on an annual basis.

    Finally, you don’t provide balanced information on plant benefits or preferences for wildlife. Butterflies have narrow host-plant specificities, so providing a pile of exotics that don’t serve as host plants for native butterfly populations can potentially serve as a population sink if larvae can’t survive. I volunteer as a speaker at Woodland Park Zoo, where the staff will tell you hummingbirds prefer the small flowers of native honeysuckle and even snowberry to the big, fragrant flowers of non-native honeysuckle cultivars that are being bred for human pleasure, not easy access to nectar by hummingbirds.

    I think the take home needs to be thoughtful balance. I know it doesn’t make for a colorful, snappy blog entry, but I’ve found our local audiences really appreciate being given some help, information, and direction to create healthy habitat as well as aesthetically pleasing landscapes.

    Respectfully,
    Monica

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