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The Low-Down on Native Plants

If you want an ugly landscape, fill your garden with native plants.

If you are still reading at this point then you either are curious as to just how insane I may be, or, you are curious about why I may say that.  Yes, I’m exaggerating a little in that statement, but for the most part it is true (at least in my opinionated mind it is).  No, I am not a hater of native plants…….not by any stretch.  I love many of the natives that we carry and look forward to people adding them to their garden.  That being said, MOST gardens filled with natives from an aesthetic standpoint are going to be somewhat unattractive when compared to a landscape of both native and exotic plant material.  We need to get a couple of things straight in this article.

1)      What is native?

2)      Are natives better than introduced plant species?

3)      Why not have a garden full of native plants?

So what exactly constitutes a “native” plant that we read and hear about from so many experts?  Native to where?  The North American continent?  TheUnited States?  The southeastern US? North Carolina?  A specific region on NC?  Do we consider plants that arrived during or after the colonization of the eastern seaboard?  Many plants arrived from all over the globe during that time and have been growing in our ecosystem for hundreds of years, but are they considered native?  How about hybrids or cultivars?  I feel like when someone speaks or writes about native plants, they should spell out the parameters of what “native” is to them.  I personally would define native plants as those from the south eastern and mid-Atlantic states that were here previous to the arrival of the Europeans.  That is just my humble opinion.  One could argue that I am incorrect from a number of viewpoints.  Am I being nit-picky?  Probably so, but a term should not be thrown around like this without some kind of guideline as to what it means.  This occurred on a daily basis during the 2007 drought.  Some talking head would be interviewed on the news about how to conserve water and one of the first points was always “plant native plants”.  It was an incorrect statement then and still is now.  For those wondering, yes, I am still bitter.

Are native plants “better” than introduced plant species?  Good question.  What exactly does “better” mean?  Better cold hardiness?  Better pest and disease resistance?  Drought tolerance?  Each one of theses questions have long detailed answers that would turn this short article into a monstrosity that would bore you to death.  I will say that any plant, whether it be native or introduced, will perform well IF planted in the proper location, installed with proper planting techniques, and given reasonable care during its time of establishment.  A stressed plant regardless of origin is going to be less cold hardy, more pest and disease prone, and certainly much less drought tolerant.  Sure, there are plants on both side of the argument that are better than others, but to say that one group (native or introduced) is better than the other is flat out incorrect.  The drought tolerance argument is the one that is most discussed and I will say that during the drought of 2007 I saw just as much damage to native plants as I did to exotic species.  I have no evidence to back up this claim but after seeing it for myself and speaking with other plant geeks who witnessed the same I am comfortable saying it.  Once again, regardless of plant origin, stressed plants were severely affected while healthy plants toughed it out and continued growing the following season.

Why not fill your landscape up with native plants?  The biggest reason is that you will be leaving A TON of awesome plants out of your garden.  Remember, exotic plants are brought to new places for a reason.  Some not always good reasons and we have to be careful of that but many of our ornamental exotics have awesome or even superior color, texture, and form when compared to our natives.  Yes, I am saying that as a whole, I feel like introduced plants are prettier than natives.  A great example of this is hydrangea.  Oakleaf and smooth hydrangea are both “native” to many areas along the east coast.  Hydrangea macrophylla is traced to Japan and Korea.  This is the plant that many people recognize as “hydrangea” and come to the garden center looking for.  From an ornamental standpoint, Hydrangea macrophylla is the more popular garden item due to its flowering ability, compact shape, and attractive foliage.  Oakleaf and smooth hydrangea are both beautiful plants and deserve a spot in the landscape, but not the prime locations.  The two natives tend to grown somewhat rangy and have odd shapes and sizes.  The hydrangea example is just one of many with similar talking points.  Native plants tend to have less four season ornamental interests in the garden and a landscape full of them would be a little lackluster.

By no means do I dislike native plants.  The list of indigenous species that add spice to the garden is to long to list here but include:

Serviceberry

Beautyberry

Sweetshrub

Sweetspire

Redbud

Carolina Jessamine

Dogwood

Fothergilla

Magnolia

Yucca

Baldcypress

And many, many more

They all add ornamental value, biodiversity, and habitat for wildlife to our lives.  My beef is strictly with the idea that exotic or introduced plants are inferior or just do not belong in our gardens.  Notice that we have not discussed invasive species.   Some introduced plants have become invasive and are problematic in the United States.  Introductions should be carefully monitored to ensure this does not happen.  That is an entirely different topic for another day.  Plant all the natives you like, they are awesome plants……..just do not forget many of the awesome companion plants from afar!

Happy Planting!

 

Brad Rollins