Cutting Through the Jungle - Native Plants Myths and Realities

Cutting Through the Jungle - Native Plants Myths and Realities

By Published March 11, 1995 Updated September 13, 2022

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In a 1994 New York Times article, Michael Poulan called them Eco-Nazis. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called them environmentalist whackos. What ever you call them, the native plant movement in this country is gaining momentum and picking up supporters from every walk of life. 


The fervor over native plants has seemingly taken on a life of its own, as more folks hop onto the bandwagon. Some foes to the trend feel threatened, often by a lack of understanding, and tend to lump all native plant lovers together... left wing weirdos with a desire to stifle all economic growth for the sake of a few spotted orchids. That's about as silly as grouping folks based solely on skin color.

Folks grow native plants for as many different reasons as there are folks to grow them. Some folks grow native plants out of concern for the health of the environment (environmentalists), some folks grow natives because they are concerned with the natural balance of habitats (ecologists), some grow native plants because it makes them feel good (nature lovers), and some because there are some wonderful natives with commercial and landscape potential (horticulturists).

As with any group, the native plant movement has it's loud and radical lunatic fringe elements. These are the folks which, with the fervor of a television evangelist, decry the elimination of lawns, the passage of laws that will only permit natives to be grown, and a concept of putting the government in charge of the environment. There are thankfully many more folks that grow native plants for a variety of other less extreme reasons.

Defining a Native Plant

As you delve deeper into the world of native plant enthusiasts, there is a surprising lack of consensus as to what is a native plant. The broadest of definitions, define native plants, as those plants which occur and reproduce in an area without cultivation by man.

The problem with this definition is that it includes plants such as Queen Anne's Lace, ox-eye daisy, and that southern favorite kudzu, that were brought in by European settlers (and in kudzu's case, by the US Government), and have made themselves right at home.

Similarly, while Japanese honeysuckle is well naturalized in the US, it is by no means a native. According to Cole Burrell, a recognized native plant expert from Minnesota, over 20% of the plants listed in Peterson's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, are introductions from Europe.

Other problems with setting parameters for what qualify as a native plant are the state borders. These borders, devised by our forefathers, were done with no regard to which side of the line these native plants grew. Unsurprisingly, plants only recognize environmental lines such as rainfall amounts, soil types, and temperature extremes.

There are some ecologists who really get uptight and decry that when the same plant is native from North Carolina to Maine, a plant from a Maine population is a non-native plant when taken to North Carolina.

We have other groups of folks who want to qualify native plants as those that grow in a particular region of the country, while others qualify native plants as those that grew before English settlers arrived...I guess the plants that were introduced to areas by the politically correct Native Americans don't count.

The native plant issue is further clouded when fossils such as Ginkgo are located in North Carolina. How can this asian tree be an American native? Remember back when all of the continents were joined?

Could it be that the continental split occurred irrespective of where similar plants were growing? It is sort of strange that many nearly identical asian counterparts of our native plants are found in regions of Japan and Korea. Could it be that some of these plants were formally "native" to North Carolina, just not in a scale of time to which most folks can relate?

Despite the confusion over native plants, radical and vocal groups (especially in the midwest) have lobbied for and passed laws making it illegal to grow any plants that were not growing in the state, or in some cases within a 50-mile radius, prior to the 1800's. I wonder where the burden of proof of what is a native plant rests in this debate...guilty until proven innocent?

Why Grow Natives

Native has become the catchword of the 90's, along with "organic". Horticultural semantics now determine whether we can feel good or guilty about our gardening habits.

One of the rationales for growing native plants is that they are somehow better adapted to our area. Since we see dogwoods, oaks, and maples in our woods, we assume that they are well adapted to our area and will survive under neglect.

Once we closely examine a forest habitat, however, we find that only a small percentage of the trees that sprout ever make it to maturity. Upon close examination of a native woodland, you will find literally thousands of dead and dying natives. In years of severe droughts, it is not uncommon to find large populations of native plants killed. While this is quite acceptable in natural populations, it would be very unacceptable in a home landscape.

Many "native" plants are almost extinct in the wild...but, how could this be, if they are so well adapted. The answer is that many native plants are very poorly adapted, and will grow only in very specialized natural habitats. They may require an acid peat bog in the case of some carnivorous plants, or a specific location on the side of a mountain in a limestone deposit for a small alpine.

Because some natives are so poorly adapted, government has had to step into the picture to ensure that these poorly adapted plants are saved. Because of the outcry of many environmental groups, the elimination of a species has become a sin.

Even with those native plants that are very adaptable, we must ask ourselves, how close to a native habitat is the area that we are planting these native plants. Does a shopping center, or even a home lot remotely resemble a native plant habitat? Have we recreated the eco system that a dogwood grew in naturally, or are we planting it in a sunny lawn that more closely resembles the plains of Texas?

Why Not to Grow Exotics

The reasons not to grow non-natives (whatever non-natives are), are equally as absurd as some of the reasons to grow natives. I have heard many ecologists contend that non-natives are going to be less adaptable and require more spraying and more care. Anyone that has ever grown any plants in a home landscape realize that this is certainly not true.

Of our most used plants...intentional and unintentional, most are from areas outside the US. How about Japanese Holly...or Japanese ligustrum...if these aren't adaptable plants, I don't know what is.

Then, I get the argument from another group that non-natives don't have any natural controls in our area, and that they will take over and choke out the native vegetation. As with all blanket statements, this too is false.

Certainly, there are plenty of cases of introduced plants run amuck. Popular examples include norway maple, kudzu, japanese honeysuckle, and lythrum. There are, however, many more examples of well behaved plants from other lands, that fit in well to our landscapes without becoming pests. On the other hand, there are plenty of native weeds, which choke out other more aesthetically pleasing native plants.

The Case for Diversity

As we become more of a global society, traveling from country to country, it is impossible not to "albeit accidentally" introduce a pest that can destroy large populations of native plants...i.e., Dutch Elm Disease. Without biological diversity, large populations of single types of plants will be destroyed.

Everyone Has an Agenda

One would assume that it would be the purpose of all native plant lovers to preserve native plants in any way that could be devised. Such, however, is not the case. Many of the native plant lovers are interested only in preserving the habitat...not the plant growing outside the habitat. Many of the federal laws have been devised to actually prevent endangered plants from being propagated and distributed.

A good example was a situation that happened several years ago, where the NC Department of Transportation had been criticized by many native plant groups for not planting enough "native" wildflowers in natural settings along the roadsides.

In response, NC DOT approached a local conservation group with the idea to save seed from a federally endangered coneflower, Echinacea laevigata, from the their roadside, grow the seed, then replant the plants along the roadside. The department was told that the idea was not feasible since the plants could not be grown outside a very specialized environment.

NC DOT continued with the project, and soon had hundreds of plants ready to replant into the native landscape. This time, they were met with stronger resistance. They were told that they would contaminate the natural gene pool of native Echinacea laevigata if they planted these plants back into the wild.

Unknown to the Department of Transportation, much of the money that ecological and native plant groups receive is federal and state grant money to count and study these native endangered populations. If the endangered plants were to become no longer endangered, there goes the funds.

A similar occurrence happened in Texas, where Dr. David Creech of the Steven F. Austin State University Arboretum became interested in a native hibiscus, H. dasycalyx, a federally endangered Texas native plant.

Dr. Creech and his coworkers took some cuttings and proceeded to grow large blocks of this hibiscus, which he found to be quite easy to grow. Once local ecologists found out however, they were irate, since Creech had more plants at the arboretum than existed in the wild. Once again, they were very upset that the plant might become non-endangered.

On the other side of the coin, one of the purposes of keeping a plant endangered is so that the native habitat can be preserved. It is the environmentalist and ecologists thinking, that if the plants are not endangered, then there will be no means by which to preserve native habitats in which these plants grow.

Again, it seems that we have two perspectives that seemingly haven't been able to flip to the same page. There are obviously some environmentalists that think we should grow only native plants, and should have only native environments.

Horticulture vs. Ecology

Are plant species becoming extinct? The answer is certainly yes. Were plant species becoming extinct before we set foot on this continent? Certainly yes. There are some native plants which are so poorly adapted that without intervention from man, these plants would be virtually eliminated in the wild. A good example is Franklinia alatamaha, a plant thought to be extinct for hundreds of years. Thanks to nurserymen however, this difficult to grow native is being cultivated around the world.

Even the federal native plant laws are made to discourage horticulturists from being able to grow and sell federally endangered native plants. A famous nurseryman from the region was threatened with jail for possessing endangered plants, which he was offering for sale.

It didn't matter that the plants had been propagated from seed from a botanical garden. Without the lengthy government required documentation and miles of red tape, (akin to proving how you got into this country despite the fact that your family may have lived here for 200 years), nurserymen are strongly discouraged from trying to rescue a plant that is endangered.

As with all plants, there are horticulturally interesting natives as well as native weeds. In the eyes of an ecologist, all natives including the weeds have an important part in the ecology of a particular site. For example, broom sedge serves to hold the soil, while the next sucessionary stage of plants are getting established.

What unfortunately is slow to happen is the horticultural world working with the ecological world. Horticulturists are not interested in growing native weeds that they can't sell, while ecologists are adamant about not making selections of native plants. According to the ecologists, growing a single clone of wildflower is unnatural and reduces the gene pool, by growing all individuals with the same genetic makeup.

Realistically, however, when a consumer looks over a block of plants deciding which to buy, they will naturally choose the best one...bigger flowers, better get the picture.

Woods With A View

I was raised in a wooded lot in west Raleigh, where I had access to a wide range of woodland environments in which to roam. As a child, I collected samples of wildflowers which were planted in my home garden and watched with great interest. There is certainly no one with more love and interest in native wildflowers.

It was certainly devastating to watch as homes began to take more and more of the land that was formerly rich with wildflowers. I remember watching in agony nearly 20 years ago, as land was cleared for South Hills Mall near Cary. Several of us worked frantically to rescue atamasco lilies, yellow lady slipper orchids, and a native plant, like Trillium , and much more from the building site.

Most folks have no idea that pitcher plants used to grow native in Wake County, only a block from the JC Raulston Arboretum. Any lover of native plants agrees that it's a shame that many of these sites could not be preserved.

The best efforts that could be mustered at the time were those of Raleigh resident Margaret Reid, who was at the forefront of plant rescue efforts. In Margaret's Dixie Trail garden, one can still view native plants from the former habitats of Crabtree Valley Mall, South Hills Mall, North Hills Mall, and even Cameron Village.

While such efforts were, and still are quite noble, it would certainly be nice if more efforts could be made to preserve samples of these native habitats.

Some of the best work in this country has been pioneered by the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Their work in increasing awareness of native plants and habitats has resulted in many folks understanding more about natives. Their conservation through propagation efforts have resulted in many more propagated wildflowers.

Thanks to efforts of some of the Conservancy groups in the area, and with some government incentives, perhaps more areas can be saved. All we need now is folks willing to help to bridge the gap between the ecological concerns and the horticultural concerns, and the environment will be a better place for all of us.


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