The Native, Not Native Plant Debate: Is It Valid?

By Debra Knapke

Late fall is my time for contemplation, for this question and so many more. The leaves are down, the garden beds are put-to-bed – as much as I do that anymore. The days are moody with short periods of transcendent blue skies bracketed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.

I look out into my garden and consider… what delighted me? what did not? what worked? what did not?

My ideas and gardening have changed considerably over the years. From collecting and figuring out where everything could fit to needing to understand how nature works. It isn’t about the quantity, but the quality of plants, plant communities and soil – the foundation of everything.

Purpose – the concept that must underlie all garden creation and maintenance. Why are you doing it? For these times when our climate is changing, our food systems are insecure, and we know that we must support each other and the Earth. My garden’s purpose is to support all life that comes to it, and to supplement our diet. These are my primary gardening intentions.

For the first intention, using native plants is essential. Native plants – those that belong to an ecological niche, have not been introduced by humans and have been here longer than us (I’ll let you determine who “us” is) – native animals, and soil systems have evolved together. At every step of the way, change has been a part of this relationship, so the native plant of 500 years ago may not be the native plant of today, but the relationships remain.

For the second intention, many of us would be hard-pressed to live off the land in Ohio. There are too many of us and we have become accustomed to having luscious tomatoes, spicy basil, and our pick of culinary delights. Fortunately, many of these food plants from other lands also have relationships with their animal counterparts, and often, these relationships work for our native insects and others.

Yes, there is the question of fitness: does a non-native plant offer as good a resource to our animals? I believe the jury is still out on this question. We have studies (Mt. Cuba, Cornell, and other institutions) that show that our native insects prefer our native plants as shown by their visitation rate. But I am waiting for the brilliant researcher who is able to figure out how to ask a bumblebee the question: “Which of these offers the best nutrition for you, false sunflower or Black Adder anise hyssop?”

Bumbles on our native false sunflower (Heliopsis sp.) and on Black Adder anise hyssop, a hybrid of our native Agastache foeniculum and European native A. rugosum

So, my title and question: the native, not native plant debate: Is it valid? My answer is yes and no…  It depends on Why You Garden – a topic for another time.

To  help you figure out where you stand in the native/non-native debate, I offer a rating scale by the brilliant J. C. Raulston who looked for plants that performed well in the landscape and who may have introduced plants that are in your garden.

Enjoy!

EXOTIC VS. NATIVE PLANTS PHILOSOPHY SCALE (1-10) 

By J. C. Raulston – 1996

To help understand where others (and you) stand in the very wide spectrum of the horrific and unending native vs. exotic plant “mud-wrestling debate” – the following scale is offered tongue-in-cheek for humor to laugh at ourselves on this admittedly serious issue. Where are YOU in this range??

1-2: Encourage maximum population growth; burn, bulldoze and kill all existing vegetation and build everywhere; plant only those ugly aggressive noxious exotic plants with no redeeming values (e.g. – hybrid tea roses, Leyland cypresses or ‘Bradford’ pears); eat only kiwis, mangos and rice; live in rosewood lumber homes with plastic furniture; demand “Chemplush” (TM) lush iridescent green lawns everywhere and in all seasons.

2-4: Burn, bulldoze and kill most existing vegetation – but save old historic trees slept under by great presidents; maintain cryogenic tissue samples of native flowers germplasm just in case someone ever wants to sample for a pimple cure; eat olives and figs, with one bowl of beans a month; live in a redwood home with a basket woven of local reeds; weed and feed lawn monthly and mow weekly.

4-6: Live life in moderation; plant and enjoy useful plants; protect native habitats; eat everything in sight regardless of origin (Raulston’s Rule); recycle paper, homes, and other products – and use local plantation grown lumber to build; weed & feed lawn annually and mow monthly if it needs it; worry endlessly about everything ’cause you don’t have a final perfect answer to Earth’s problems like everyone else seems to.

6-8: Eliminate aggressive invasive exotic plants; work politically and financially to protect native habitats; urge population control; use low maintenance native plants appropriate to environment and culture; eat beans, corn, blueberries and an occasional cantaloupe in season; live in hand-hewn pine cabin from lumber you grew yourself; use all native oak furniture built from lightening killed trees and enjoy a mahogany rocking chair inherited from your Indonesian great-grandfather; let goats graze whatever grass or other stuff comes up out front – then eat goat (if not vegetarian or animal rights).

8-10: Eliminate all plant species not growing when and where they existed as colonists arrived; remove all physical construction not in use in 1492 and reduce human population levels to that time with appropriate attention to native American ethnic purity; eliminate all travel and exchange of products and/or technology; eat only the foods botanically existing on your specific habitat (no cheating with imported Mexican corn or Maine blueberries) – mushrooms are recommended as they don’t reproduce easily or spread aggressively; live in caves to protect trees from destruction; wear no clothing or use any tools; if there is no tree removal, there is no sun, and therefore no summer grass = no lawn maintenance sweat.

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