Is It Really a Native Plant Garden?

I’m having a crisis of identity. I imagine you’re having one, too, if you visit this blog often. I tout my 1,500’ garden as a native plant garden, but in reality it’s more like 80%. When I started out, I didn’t know the benefit of natives (I didn’t know much about gardening period), and I’m slowly winnowing out the non natives either by default, or because they have minimal wildlife value based on my observations and research.

I will likely keep my lavender, but I don’t know for how long. I admit their late May beauty and the bees adore them for nectar, as they adore globe thistle and crabapple. The iris are short for this earth, as is the last hosta. I’m seeding more and more sunflowers – insects love them, goldfinches and chickadees love them, and I love seeing little zigzag roads carved out in their leaves, places where leafcutters have been gathering nest material.

I see lots of non natives anymore. Is that a problem?

I see lots of non natives anymore. Is that a problem?

But you know what? My garden is not 80% native, it’s more like 20%. I have cultivars of ninebark and dogwood and viburnum shrubs – of value to wildlife for sure, adapted to my soil and climate for sure, but cultivars I don’t know about and figure the wildlife might not know either (at least not in ways they might know a wild specimen). I’ve removed 95% of coneflower hybrids and cultivars, primarily because I seldom saw insects nectaring on them like the straight species (and because they performed much less vigorously).

But too many things are named cultivars – the goldenrods, liatris, meadow rue, meadowsweet, rudbeckia, joe pye weed, coreopsis, even the grasses like indian, switch, and bluestem. What improvements are we really making? Why do we need to? What’s wrong with the straight species? If your bluestem flops, maybe it should be grown in an appropriate landscape design based on its natural state – bluestem require tall prairie flowers for support (as well as other bluestem), so they don’t make good architectural accent plants. Accept it.

Two years ago I raised 200 monarchs. Not one egg this year.

Two years ago I raised 200 monarchs. Not one egg this year.

I’d like to see someone try to “improve” Liatris ligulistylis. I’m amazed this plant hasn’t surpassed butterfly bush in marketing tactics, because before it started blooming two weeks ago I’d not seen one monarch butterfly the whole stinking year, now I see them every day. The thing is a miracle wildflower.

I think it's pretty. But is it attractive to all life in ways I think it is?

I think it’s pretty. But is it attractive to all life in ways I hope it is?

My crisis is ultimately this – my observations, admittedly part of a relatively new study in my backyard — show that straight species wildflowers in particular seem to be attracting more insects for reasons such as nectar, nest material, and as host plants; this goes for boneset, mountain mint, coneflowers, rudbeckia, purple prairie clover, wild senna, ironweed, coreopsis, liatris, baptisia, and prairie dock. This is all anecdotal on my part, so please chime in with your evidence. But it makes me wonder if I really have a native plant garden after all, and how my next garden might actually be one and serve as a more successful example of prairie gardening in a suburban, designed landscape.

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  1. Carole says

    Sounds like you are ready to start collecting seeds and cutting. Fall is a wonderful time to collect seeds. In my area perennial seeds are started in the fall. You may want to do a little research on seed starting in your area.

  2. says

    It’s a journey to be sure. You’re further ahead than many in recognizing that cultivars don’t have the same ecological value as free-born natives. There is one (only one!) line in Tallamy’s infamous book that makes me cringe — where he accepts the validity of cultivars in restoring our landscapes. We all have our views on the subject…but the only ones that count are those of wildlife.
    I’m fortunate in that there are many growers around Toronto that offer plants grown from local seed sources. There are several less stringent growers which I avoid. It pays to ask! Seed, collected ethically, is also a great source of wonderfully “unimproved” plants that do so much and require so little.

  3. Dan Stever says

    Interesting article. I had a large garden in Lexington, KY with many of the same plants you mention and discovered the same issues with some of the hybrids – especially echinacea. But I must say that some non native plants provide great habitat. Artemisia absynthia had more lady bug larvae and lacewing larvae than any other plants in my garden. And I also believe it is ok to grow plants only for the humans. I love my lavender, but also need my basil, sage and other herbs. I wrote a book on my garden and if you have time, please take a look. ‘Meet Me In The Garden’ can be read in full at

  4. Michael says

    It’s all relative, really. While they may not be as beneficial as species plants, we can all agree nativars are doubtless better than aliens. In my garden, the only non-native/cultivar plant are 9 goldsturm Rudbeckias. Their purpose was to be affordable and provide color/ appease the landlords until the other native plants matured. Once this happens, I’ll dig them up and pass them on to someone else. They still attract a few pollinators and I see their leaves suffer insect damage, but I would rather be certain of the impact of my plants.

  5. Terri says

    I do agree, however to sway the general public that is not using natives sometimes we have to put ‘glitter’ on the package to move them over to our side of the garden. This gets a foot in the door. Also, I do want to point out that all cultivars are not man made, many are naturally occurring and found in the wild. A hint – if it’s patented it’s man made. So look for PP# or PPAF – if you see it walk away.

    • says

      Why do we have to put glitter on already gorgeous plants? Problem is few nurseries sell natives, so few shoppers even know what one is. With over 7,000 native plants in the U.S., I’m not sure we need glitter of any PPAF.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Dream Talking Out Loud

  6. eastern gardener says

    I use natives and ornamentals. Nature is not frozen in time. At one time what we call natives were not indigenous to a certain area. Nature has to evolve as time goes on and some species disappear and other appear and flourish. Mockingbirds were never found in our area 100 years ago, but are now prevalent.

    • says

      We’ve ended evolutionary processes, that’s how I see it. We’ve ended “nature.” If you want to call palm trees indigenous to Kansas because 100s of millions of years ago there was a balmy inland sea with tropical islands, well, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking what was here before we ripped it all up with manifest destiny. I’m pretty sure everyone assumes that’s what we’re talking about, right? We are still so very near to what was here before we ripped it up in favor of farms (this from my Nebraska perspective). We still SEE the remnants in graveyards, ditches, and rocky, shallow terrain. It’s not like it’s gone — the ghost is still very much haunting us.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Dream Talking Out Loud

  7. says

    Define “success” as it relates to a native wildflower garden, or any other type of gardening for that matter. I’m not too keen on the idea of using the word “success” when it comes to writing about gardening. Mississippi gardening guru Felder Rushing often says “plant it green side up, if it grows and thrives you done good, if it don’t plant something else, it ain’t like you’re married to it.” He’s also told me on more than one occasion that “the rules stink.”
    TC recently posted..The cost of creativity

    • says

      Success is when natural process are occurring. Success is when we don’t value our ideology above that of nature’s. Success is when we are living with nature. Success is respecting all species equally and understanding our dependence on healthy ecology through daily interaction with that healthy ecology. There. Defined. :)
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Dream Talking Out Loud

  8. FL-Friendly-Yard-Fan says

    I am envious of your 2000 sq ft garden! Those are beautiful photos of your garden. Here in north central Florida, the butterflies feast and use both natives and non-natives. We are visited daily and often by zebra longwings, monarchs, gulf fritillaries, giant swallowtails, and long-tailed skippers. Non-native and native milkweed are both used as host plants for the monarchs. (Right now there are lots of caterpillars and not much milkweed!) We have several different species passionflower vines and there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason which ones they prefer. The blue porterweed is not our Florida native, but gets visited every day as a nectar source. Red pentas (again, not native) are used as much as the scarlet hibiscus, which is a native. The hummingbirds are not finicky either. The native firebushes, of which we have four, are also popular with both the hummingbirds and all the butterflies. I will say the native salvia does get chosen more often by the butterflies than the cultivated salvias. Nevertheless, we have made a decision to go more “native”. When certain plants die out, we will be replacing them with natives. We are able to grow many of our native wildflowers from seeds and are lucky enough to have the Florida Wildflowers Cooperative to order our seeds from.

  9. says

    I think there is certainly room in the garden for cultivars of native plants . I am not at all a fan of patented plants but as Terri said, there are naturally occurring variations that end up in the nursery trade.
    A good example here in NJ is Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’. This pink flowering form of our native Clethra was discovered in the wild. It attracts more insects than any other plant I have ever seen.

  10. says

    What I’m going to say about native plants comes from my experience in the nursery trade in the Sacramento Valley of California, so it may not pertain directly to gardeners in the eastern U.S.

    First of all, I’m in a state that has many diverse ecosystems. The fact that something is native in our geographic boundary doesn’t mean it is suitable everywhere. California coastal natives aren’t any more effective in an interior garden than introduced species. It is very rare for a ‘native plant’ garden here to be truly a reflection of what would have been native to this area before it was plowed under or built upon. The term is really used very loosely. People aren’t doing habitat restoration. Many of the reasons they’re selecting natives would be equally applicable to plants from other parts of the world with similar climate, such as the Mediterranean or Australia or South Africa: lower water use, tolerance of poor soils or heat, etc.

    Many of the cultivars on the market are simply selections of wild species that were chosen for some characteristic the grower thought would make them preferred by gardeners. Many of our native shrubs are rangy or sparse, so a tighter-growing selection would sell better and look better. A stronger or more consistent color of the flowers, or larger inflorescences. More abundant berries, or a unique color.
    Since these were selections from the wild, there is no particular reason to think they are any more or less attractive to wildlife. Good examples can be found in Arctostaphylos, and the Heteromeles ‘Davis Gold’ toyon. They’re native, they occurred naturally, and someone just thought people might prefer that variant.

    Others are hybrids. For example, of the many cultivars of ceanothus available to me from wholesale growers, a significant number are inter-specific hybrids. Now you might have a case that these could be less successful for certain wildlife, in the sense that they displace the ‘true’ native from that niche. Are they less attractive to the wildlife? Less abundant pollen producers? That would require observation, and there is some research on that topic. I sense some ideology-based assumptions here. Hard data would be more useful.

    For a lot of your east-coast native herbaceous perennials, the new hybrids that are coming on the market are inferior garden performers. That is the feedback we’re getting about the new Echinaceas and Rudbeckias in particular. They aren’t as hardy, they just seem to fizzle out after a year. Same seems to be happening with the many new Achilleas. And if they’re more heavily doubled flowers, I’d expect them to be less effective for pollinators (often the doubling reflects an increase in the number of sterile flowers in an inflorescence, since those are the showy parts). It’s also possible that if they’re in a non-natural color range, they won’t attract their usual cohorts. These aren’t native to us in California, so I don’t have much to add on that topic.

    Give your feedback to your retailers, and be specific about both garden performance and how the wildlife respond to them. Color sells in the short run, but if we can advise people about what performs better in the long run then we all benefit.

    • JT says

      Very thoughtful post, Don. I’m in the Sac valley too, closer to the foothills, and have learned over the years about the many shades of gray on this topic. Our intent was to make a very wildlife-friendly landscape, but we had the onerous restrictions of an HOA (avoid at all costs if you don’t want to conform to the boring norm). We’ve had some success, but with all the hours, dollars, and plants we’ve used, I don’t see as much wildlife as expected. We have protected wetlands, and when we had a beaver family, the life simply exploded in abundance. We had osprey, river otters, rare ducks…when the beaver disappeared, it all disappeared. Plant choices have never made up for that loss.

      I’m rather jaded now, but still focus on native plants. If it helps our native bees, that alone is a win in my book. I do ask at nurseries, just to keep reminding them about natives, and when I see an invasive being sold, I speak up.
      My plea here is to support your local native plant society. They are invaluable in protecting what little may remain of our natural heritage.

  11. says

    when it comes to selecting plants we use the phrase the “right plant in the right place” by this we mean look at the plants ecological context. if it is a bog species it better have constant water. we set up the nursery by water and sun requirements so you can see who lives in these habitats. we ask customers about their landscape so we can direct them to the plants that will be successful. we also ask what is their goal, all of CT is a managed landscape with the average age of our trees around 65 years old. NEW in the plant world and change will happen, knowing an overall goal greatly helps selecting plants for a landscape.

    push your nurseries for native grown in your region. High bush blueberries from Oregon sold in CT are not native to me.

    One example of the importance of native to your region comes with redbud, Cercis, many sold at nurseries in CT come from the south where redbud is abundant but during harsh winters die in CT. CT is the northern limit for redbud and the plants we collect seed from are 60 + years old and are great fruit producers. There also close to its only native populations in CT I.D. by A. Haynes in Flora Novae Angalie.

  12. CINDY says

    I too am relatively new to native plant gardening..but luckily I did plant several native “cultivars” early on..In my garden I find that the Cone Flower is very attractive to pollinators and birds, as is the Goldenrod cultivar..Rudbeckia goldsturm not so much..that will be replaced by hirta and Gray-Headed Coneflower..In the past five years I have become involved with the Long Island Native Plant Initiative and hence have access to ecotypic Long Island Plants..I am slowly switching over to these..

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