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That's a good balanced viewpoint...

In South Africa, Indigenous (As its called here) Gardening has gained a lot of momentum, but I think it has finally reached a tipping point in peoples thinking.

Exotics and cultivars used to be the preferred choice, but lately I've noticed people would rather plant indigenous than use exotics if they can help it. The difficulty has been in convincing people that indigenous can be as, or even more attractive than exotics.

I think one needs to keep in mind the science behind using natives in the first place. After all, we don't do it just so the place looks like 1776, or to make us feel virtuous. We do it (to the best of my understanding) so that pollinators and the rest of the ecosystem can thrive and therefore help perpetuate the survival of OUR species, which is not ensured by any means!
Again, as I understand it, the science on "nativars" is so far inconclusive as to whether they can still perform their ecological function - but some scientists such as Doug Tallamy have hypothesized that as long as the plant and floral structure remains intact, so should the function. I think all of us old biology majors (and Doug) recognize that this is just a guess. But I would highly recommend his book, or listening to him speak, to truly understand why all the folderol about natives arises in the first place. I asked for it for Christmas and am salivating over it till I can open it! (:
All that said, this old biology major's opinion is that in a geological time frame, the ecosystem will adapt to non-natives and new pollinators will co-evolve with the new plants to reestablish the system, or evolve a new one.
The only trouble with that is that it may leave the current occupants of the planet, ourselves included, as a species which dies out due to inability to adapt. So therein lies the great conundrum.

I am in favor of natives, but I am confused about what you are calling Nativars. Good name and helpful. My question is, will the nativars support the food net for birds and insects the way that natives do? One of my reasons for growing natives is to support the whole ecological system. HELP!

I'm a grower, gardener and a perennial hortiholic. I like to promote native plants too, because "in theory" they should be easier to grow in our gardens. Everyone is for easier gardening!

To clarify one point however (I know you said not to get into arguments, but...), I would suggest a cultivar of a native species (e.g. E. purpurea 'Kim's Knee High') should still be considered "native". Just because we propagate it asexually, doesn't make it "non-native". The plants still have all their original native genetics!

I would even argue that a hybrid of two native species, should also still be considered native. Again, on a genetic level, it's still 100% native. I understand however, that the purists get sticky about the exact geography of native species.

In any case, these details matter little -- use "nativars"!

FWIW, one of my favourites is Geranium maculatum 'Elizabeth Ann'.


This is always an interesting area. For those putting the environmental baseline at european arrival I'd encourage reading the pleistocene rewilders thoughts on where it should be - for example - Paul S. Martin's "Twilight of the Mammoths"

My thoughts are that there are obviously levels of preferability and the further a nativar gets from its parents' forms and their home range the less useful it gets to wildlife but then all gardens are wildlife gardens; some more than others and I can't get too excited about levels of nativism; too often it seems like just another way for one person to suggest they are "better" than another because their garden is "more natural"....

Thanks for your post on this important subject. In recent years, I have added more and more natives to gardens that I design so that now 80-90% of the gardens are native. The clients love it and I feel great about helping to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

I wrote an article about natives not too long ago. Check it out at:

All the best- Fran

I've had this vague notion floating in my head for awhile that native plants grow best in native soils -- and there are precious few areas of truly native soil left in our country.

Certainly our garden soils are far from the natural conditions where natives thrived. And chances are good that the 'wild' areas near our homes have at one time or another had their soil drastically changed by some combination of logging, grazing, farming or bulldozing.

So if we're going to grow and encourage natives, what kind of soil should we provide?

And is part of the reason we want to grow them so that they can spread back into the wild? And is the reason that invasives have a leg up in the wild because the altered soil conditions there favor them over the native species that once thrived there?

I wish someone who knew more about soils, native plants and invasives would tackle some of those questions.

Ditto Craig's request! And while you're at it, take into account other changes from the native plant's original habitat. Here in the East most landscapes are far sunnier now than they were when the Europeans arrived.

Also Allan, what's up with defining "native plant" as original to the whole continent? Does that serve any purpose at all - horticultural or wildlife-related - other than broadening the marketing success of the plants by confusing the consumer? It bothers me to see plants designated simply as "native" or "U.S. native", which the US Dept of Ag does in their plant profiles. Like political boundaries mean anything. Or in the case of using all of N. America, like plants from Arizona and Mexico are going to survive or feed wildlife here in Maryland.

I think "locally native" or at least "regionally native" should be the standard. I've noticed that "native-plant designers" in my area use the regional approach, which allows them to use some great plants from the Carolinas, like oakleaf hydrangea.

I don't feel the need for hard and fast answers to any of these questions, which is good, because I don't think there are any. I plan to just muddle along, add more natives (as I define them) to my roster, and in general encourage such wildlife as will tolerate my garden.

Since a lot of the people I talk to don't understand the word 'cultivar' I tend to say - "enhanced version of our native _______." With fellow gardeners (normal people) I will now use the term 'nativar' and hope it spreads.

Just as I was getting ready to post my reply, I discovered while googling for another reason that I was MOL going to post what I'd written here on January 9, 2008,

I don't have a whole lot more to add other than that I'm glad to see the conversation continue. And I agree with you, Alan, small steps are good: if cultivars are how natives gain a foothold in more gardens, more power to them. The reasons to grow natives are as varied as the gardeners and the gardens they grace. Let's stop thinking native plant gardening has to be one-size fits all. Personally, I think that hinders acceptance of native plants.

I try to use a 50 to 70 percent mix of natives (the actual straight species) in gardens that I install that are indigineous to Northern IL. I guess that would be termed 'regionally native' to our area. The balance are typically natives regional to other parts of the US and non-invasive 'guests' from other parts of the world.

The 'guests' are included to extend the interest of the garden from Mid March through early June - typically a down time for many sun loving prairie plants. Likewise, for shade gardens the reverse is true, the natives are typically at their peak during the spring & late summer but need a color boost from the 'guests' during the hotter months.

With a few exceptions (like 'Husker's Red' Beardstongue & some of the monardas like 'Marshall's Delight') I'm not really hip to using cultivars of natives. I find them to be weaker which sort of defeats the purpose of using natives in the first place - might as well use a more interesting non-native.

I'm saying this from a maintainence point of view because that's primarily what I do - maintain gardens while at the same time installing a few gardens a year where time allows.

Some examples which come to mind. I've found both the Meadowbrite & Big Sky series of Coneflowers - both crosses to be a disaster here in our heavy soils. Surprising since Meadowbrite was developed at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. But then again the soil is sandier along the Lake (where CBG is located) and closer to E. paradoxa's native soil type then what's seen at a typical suburban home stripped of most of the topsoil. Some of the other cones like 'Kim's Kneehigh' & 'Ruby Star' I've had okay success with as long as the soil is reasonably good. 'Goldstrum' is prone to botrytis and peters out after about 4 weeks but you get a full 6 to 8 weeks, disease free from the straight species of the orange coneflower which is really native more towards parts of southern IL. I could go on with lists of disappointing native cultivars. But to be fair, for every ten I'll find a couple that do fine.

It's very hard to find the straight species, in many cases I have to start them from divisions or seed in the spring to sell - which is a pain. But at least they perform, sometimes with less showy foliage or flowers.

I'm trying to figure out why this debate bores me so profoundly. I guess I feel there are bigger fish to fry. Suburban sprawl, the loss of native habitat to the endless acres of asphalt surrounding every Big Box store, our ridiculous carbon emissions, the general uglification of our landscape that is modern life--I guess I'll be willing to discuss natives versus non-natives after those problems are solved. Until then, I only require two things of any plant hoping to be stuck into my small urban backyard: A, able to survive without supplemental water. And B, pretty.

I don't discriminate nor hold any bias against inter-plant marriages, cross breeding within the same genus, native or not, or open cross breeding.

Diversity is a good thing , in both the environment and in humanity.

That is something the Pope should also think about.

I would like to address the soil and climate conditions.
Many native plant species are generalest(grow anywhere it seems)while others have a more narrow range of damands to thrive (picky picky), just like the more commonly grown garden cultivars.Finding out where natives grew originaly helps guide our placement. There are many choices. Native species would have been moving along the bounderies of their best conditions, sometimes spreading out futher and then disappearing completely from the original spot because of moisture or sun differences(climate changes)
Althougth topsoil has eroded and/or compacted the same deep minerals are in place for simple pre-settlement requirements. Microbial activity will be regenerated by the decomposing of the plants in time.
Communitys of general plants pave the way for more the specific conditions of picky natives.
We have watched this happed over the years in many restorations in the Chicago area. Natives thought long gone have reappeared after a known community of plants that could grow, produced the requirements of the more narrow needs plant. Community matters.

Native plants are at this time producing the adaptations necessary to survive the current conditions. Hopefully by salvaging a broad range of species genes the survival rate will increase.
As for range there are species of plants that grow ,with adaptations, all across the continent. Others are specific to an area. The more local the better for some plants, for others it does not matter so much.
Many natives are not hard to grow
and look beautiful in the right place. No harder to determine than any other type of plant for a garden.

Boring, did you say boring?
Please without the pollinators rapidly disappearing you will learn boring. When wind born pollens of grains become your choice of food. I thought you liked vegetable gardening. There are so many fruits and vegetables that grow so much more food when local pollinators are abundant.

The joke in Northern California is if you want a native garden, you better learn to love the color brown. Because of our wet winter/dry summer climate, many natives put on a spectacular show in the spring, than go dormant (read - look dead) in the summer. You have to be a pretty hardcore native enthusiast or a kick-ass plant designer to go 100% native.

Mixing about 50% natives with culturally compatible mediterranean plants seems to provide the right mix of self-satisfied environmental smugness and a pretty summer garden that my clients and I are going for.

Well, to bring up the Tallamy book again, I do think the whole native plant thing can go beyond our individual choices. It really is a critique of suburban monocultures. That is the first thing Tallamy brings up and the first (and third) thing you mention, Michele.

There is a very important "big picture" aspect to the debate.

Gloria--so true. I have native meadows in the country that I just leave alone, except for an annual mowing, and my vegetable garden buzzes with native bees.

I'm just skeptical of the value of native plants in an urban or suburban yard. There's not much wildlife to feed here in the city--unless you count the squirrels. I also think that the best efforts of many thousands of gardeners to keep an ecosystem alive in their backyards is nothing compared to the relentless force of suburbanization. So I'll save my ire for people who think it's okay to locate schools, stores, libraries, and doctors' office miles outside of town--and keep on planting exotics, thanks.

Michele, thankfully there are many that feel otherwise.
I saw a coyote in front of my urban home. While this might unsettle some it means much to me. Over 200 coyotes have been tagged and followed for six years in Chicago and many believe the numbers might be between 2000 and 3000 living in the city in every single area. They eat rodents and bring down the numbers of canadian geese that had been a serious problem.
Once I saw a long tailed shrew in our back garden, this might just be another rodent to you but is another sign that creatures can and have adapted to us.
I will agreem mostly insects and birds benefit from urban plantings of native species.That is a good thing. The number of insects species increases each year as the garden gets established. Sitting in our garden on a summer night sounds almost as loud as on a camping trip.
Much work is showing that gardens provide a corridor for these creatures even when they are not mating reproducing there.But we are finding plenty of evidence ofinsects reproducing in the many gardens we explore especially those with at least some native species.
While honey bees are rare in my garden bumble bees and other natives are becoming abundant. This is not just an idea it is being documented here and in Europe.
Work in The Brazilian Cerrado is studing the changes from native savannah to agriculture as it happens. We will learn much from the way they use current understandingings of soil biology and insect populations to manage this change over.
Grow your vegetables and exotic pretties if you must but do not disdain the efforts to understand underway in many universities and goverment agencies responsible for the future.

"Debate" is a waste of time, as if there could be a right and wrong wide to this. I think the discussion is important, moreso in the "industry" than when preaching to the converted of native plant geeks such as myself.

The purpose of a garden, and its plants, comes first. From my own observations, native pollinators - and they are numerous and varied - are most attracted to the native plants in my garden. The same goes for other invertebrates. I've seen lowly white Asters mature their seeds just when the warblers migrate through the area. If I want to observe or invite native animal life, I'm better off with native plants.

The most precious native plants in my garden are local ecotypes. They're not available in general commerce. They have been propagated from sources in and around New York City by the Staten Island Greenbelt. These have the best chance of being in synch with the phenologies that bring life, not just lifestyle, into my garden.

I would like to second what Gloria said. I live in a city of 70,000+ not too far away from an interstate highway, an airport, a railroad, and a working city waterfront (fishing boats and oil tankers). That is what I think of as urban. In my yard, I have seen foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, two species of songbird hawks, at least a dozen species of songbirds, butterflies, five types of native bees, and more of other types of insects than I know how to identify.

I have a 50x100 foot lot and the house takes up at least a third of that.

A lot can be done with relatively little effort, and, as Gloria mentioned, small gardens can provide a surprising amount to wildlife.

One of the books I read on the subject of natives versus invasives reviewed a number of studies and found that plants and organisms from other continents are much more likely to become invasive than same-continent species.

The same book ("Alien Species and Evolution" by George Cox) points out that it is really too late to ever go back to a "native" landscape (even when invasives are eradicated, environments and interactions are forever changed), but makes the case that giving natives a fighting chance by providing habitat may allow them to survive and adapt to new ecologies.

That's a good enough reason for me to keep integrating natives into the garden.

Ditto Michele Owens!

Glad to see this discussion. I lead native plant walks for the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. The more time I spend going out and learning plants and seeing where and how they grow the more I find the non-natives just plain boring.

People looked at me cross-eyed when I handed out "since the last glacier" plant lists in the mid-90's. They still do.

What has peeved me so is the fact that I must order and have them UPS'd from Kentucky or Tennessee to 50 miles north up the Hudson for the best quality & price.

So - that's it. I have started Tarn Farm LLC and am now a nursery! Greenhouse arriving mid-March! Am I nuts? Yup! But happy!

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