Are Native Plants Better?

Recently I’ve noticed  whispers in the gardening world about how native plants are the thing for “responsible gardeners” to grow. The underlying reason seems to be that a native plant is always superior to anything else. Is this true?

Today you will find most nurseries carry some native plants. Even plant breeders have gotten into the act. About a decade ago bee balm (Monarda sp.) was discovered to be genetically highly variable. Suddenly there were cultivars of bee balm of so many different colors and shapes that they were barely recognizable as offspring of the true native bee balm.

This has led to the label “nativar” which is a cultivar of a native plant. Ecological purists are not happy with some of these new plants. Sometimes when a plant undergoes selective breeding for one characteristic, it loses other beneficial characteristics. Hybrid plants often fail to produce pollen, an important food source for insects. So a genetically-altered descendent of purple coneflowers from the Great Plains, may be a waste of garden space from the viewpoint of bees and butterflies and the humans that love them.

The push to get gardeners growing natives has become so strong in some quarters that strident advocates of this are now called “native Nazis.” certainly not a nice thing to say about a fellow gardener. All this name calling has led me to consider what are my criterion for accepting a plant in my garden. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • The Plant Should Not be Harmful: This is something of an echo of the physician’s Hippocratic Oath when they pledge to “do no harm.” Some plants can escape into the wild and become invasive, crowding out useful native plants and becoming a nuisance (or worse) to farmers. What is invasive changes from region to region. Kudzu is a disaster in the moist Deep South but not at all dangerous in dry Arizona.
  • It Needs to Provide a Benefit to Me: I sweat and get downright dirty working in my garden. Anything growing there had better provide something useful. This definitely includes plants that only provide flowers for cutting. Beauty is a benefit. I don’t want to grow red tip photinas, boxwood, or other landscaping plants that do no more than cover the ground and look green. That’s not a benefit I am looking for.
  • It Should Provide Some Benefit to Wildlife: I like having bees and lizards and mourning doves visiting my garden. I enjoy the connection with nature. Granted, I am not growing fruits and vegetables so I can cheerfully smile at the minor damage to my herbs from these visitors. If I were battling deer or rabbits for produce from my garden I’m sure I’d take a harder line.

Now back to the original question – are native plants better? If they are truly native to the region where they are growing then they shouldn’t be harmful to the eco-system. But there are many, many non-native plants that are just as benign. My onion chives come from China. My lavender comes from Syria. Neither of these would be considered harmful and indeed both are good sources for nectar and pollen, if the actions of visiting butterflies are any indication. A few, but not all, native plants provide benefits to me. Henbit, ragweed, goose grass, and spurge are natives to my area but the only benefit they provide is to give me exercise as I pull them out of my garden beds. Finally, does the plant provide benefit to wildlife? Some advocates claim native wildlife will generally turn up their nose at non-native plants. Personally, that’s not been my experience. I can’t imagine a butterfly passing over a thyme from Europe when it would happily sip on nectar from a native thyme. Yes, there are insects, birds, and animals who confine themselves to a narrow list of plants (witness the Asian panda, for example) but these are the exception, not the rule.

Some, but not all, native plants lend themselves to being grown in a managed area we call a garden. They are least likely to damage the eco-system (they are part of the system, after all) but they are not the only safe plants for a responsible gardener to grow. If you like the idea of recreating a little bit of the native world in your garden, go right ahead. But don’t automatically look down on someone growing non-native plants.

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