No way, pardon the grammar, is this note a scientific paper about native and non-native plants. In fact the post here shows my confusion and ignorance on the topic. I have many questions and few, if any, answers.
There are many schools of thought and argument concerning the definition of what is a native plant and the use of non-natives in landscapes today.
First there are those like myself who believe landscapes should only contain native plants. Within the ‘native’ only group there is a broad range of views, from fundamentalists who critique any use of non-natives as ‘bad’ to those who give lip service to native plant specifications yet don’t worry too much when a non-native (unless the non-native is an invasive) is called for or installed.
Second are those who group native plants with foreign but well-behaved landscape plants. Those who promote ‘Florida Friendly Landscaping’ here in the Sunshine State fall into this group.
Finally there are those who may consider invasive plants as ‘pioneer’ species. Many commercial landscape companies and nurseries as well as farmers and the permaculture movement sometimes make up the majority of what we can call the ‘pioneer’ category.
Really though there are many shades of and combinations to the above plant belief systems.
Not surprisingly, during my life I’ve been a strident follower of each of the above groups at various times.
I’m not sure what I think about the topic today. Except that I love native plants with a passion. Fortunately I have an excuse for not knowing. The older I get the more I believe it is OK not to really know. The older I get the more I believe also that our western logic (thanks to Aristotle, Plato and the other Greek thinkers) may be the root of our confusion about native plants and non-native plants.
In searching for an answer I used to think there had to be an answer.
Now I know there is no answer, only questions. And since I was weary of thinking about all the questions with no answers, I thought I’d share some of those here.
First of all I’ve never been able to be satisfied with a definition of what a native plant actually is. Should the definition be based on science or on a definition based upon popular vote? I can hear the snickering already.
But when I was asked to develop a list of native plants for a Bermuda Green Roof last year, I was awed by the differences in opinions between the ‘native’ islanders and the ‘foreign’ scientists. What many Bermudians called natives were considered ‘adapted’ by foreigners. Who was really right, the natives or the foreigners?
Who decides what definition is correct?
Bermuda originally had zero plants. The island was born of a volcano. Hurricanes, storms, birds, ocean currents and ships have all brought plants to the islands. Where in western logic does one find justification in separating man’s influence as an invalid vector for native consideration?
To many Bermudians, Aloe vera is a native species because as far back as recorded island history reads, the plant has lived across the land. And the plant arrived on the island by boat.
A recent social media post defined native plants as those existing here in Florida before Europeans set foot on the continent. What about other peoples, such as the Kon-Tiki wayfarers or those crossing between Siberia and Alaska carrying seeds of ethnobotanically important species. What is the difference in native status in a plant brought across the Bering Straits or okra seeds smuggled in from Africa during the fifteenth century?
The StAugustine.com note goes on to label non-natives and exotics as those species “introduced deliberately or accidentally from other parts of the world”.
On Bermuda, all plants were introduced accidentally from other parts of the world. I don’t understand where the difference lies in being introduced by the wind, the waves or by humans.
I know corn existed in Florida before the Europeans arrived. Corn and other Poaceae were farmed by the Apalachee, Creek and other tribes. Glad to know corn is a native plant here in Florida.
Since corn is a native then Seminole Pumpkin should also be native. Panfilo de Narvaez, the Spanish explorer wrote about extensive cultivation of Cucurbita moschata in 1528 across Florida.
But some say Seminole Pumpkin is not a native plant. Some say we must go back to before any people inhabited the land to define those plants as genuinely considered to be native to a region. In other words, before the ‘native’ americans existed.
However I can attest that regardless of how native plants are defined, native plants are critically important for many reasons.
First of all native pollinators are attracted to native plants much more so than they are attracted to exotic and foreign plants. This is important because many native pollinators are more efficient at pollination, seemingly because they are hairy and can carry much more pollen around than smooth skinned pollinators such as the paper wasp.
I’ve been meaning to try and figure out how the native pollinators know what is and what isn’t a native plant.
Seriously though, I can drive by a stretch of native Black-eyed Susans or Thistle alongside the road and the butterflies and bees are foraging en masse. Not so on many exotic landscape flowers.
Native wildflowers are critical to another important consideration. Native wildflowers and plants attract and support populations of pollinators. Pollinators are necessary for food production.
Without pollinators food gardens do not produce.
Many times permaculture and food gardeners wonder why their food plants do not produce. Sometimes it is because there is nothing in the garden to attract necessary pollinators.
Native plants and wildflowers in a garden practically ensure a more than adequate number of pollinator visits. The more wildflowers the more food. I’m pretty sure the ‘native’ Americans had this figured out too and that is why they carried seeds of plants from afar wherever they sojourned.
Who is to say what species really existed before the ‘native’ Americans – who themselves were really just visitors from afar who decided to take up residence at some point in time in Florida.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell those Bermudians I was working with that there really were no native plants on the island because they (the island plants) all arrived there intentionally or accidentally.
Unfortunately though our misguided efforts to improve food production, control erosion, create habitat and install landscape beauty has had devastating effects here in Florida.
Brazilian Pepper, Chinese Tallow, Wisteria, Kudzu, Melaleuca, Australian Pine, Air Potato, Elodea and other agriculturally and culturally important plants have turned out to possess Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde type characteristics, some destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of native habitat.
Out of control plant populations create monocultures, choking out communities of native plants and wildflowers. Sadly many of these monster plants do not attract or feed pollinators. Some in fact encourage larger, aggressive insects who are predatory of native pollinators.
Direct links of reduced food production and native pollinator populations can be attributed to monocultures of exotic plants.
Permaculture and agriculture interests sometimes like to refer to those plant species I’d refer to as either invasive or noxious as ‘pioneer’.
Now there are many permaculture and food farmers who appreciate the value of native plants, especially from the pollinator perspective. Abundant plantings of natives and wildflowers can improve farming’s bottom line with a more robust food quantity and quality result.
Yet as in religion and politics it is the extreme fundamentalists one way or the other who are the most hypocritical.
I am worn with the two-facedness of those who would decry all planting anything but an ill-defined native plant. For it is many of them who are the biggest fast food junkies or those supporting industrialized agriculture with their upscale grocery store buying sprees.
From what I’ve seen, it is the privileged few who promote strict native plant use in landscapes. Those hungry will plant any plant so long as it feeds their family.
On the other hand, there are the dedicated foodies who will plant kudzu or Moringa oleifera for nutritional value while ignoring the detrimental monoculture impacts.
Yet as food crises reach critical proportions society may have to turn to potentially invasive plants for nutrition.
And though we’ve only raised a handful of questions about the ‘native plant dilemma’ there are many more waiting to be answered. Add those to the still unanswered questions from above.
Sure there will be those who shake their heads and say ‘science knows best’. I say their western logic is only but one way of viewing the issue.
One of my favorite ethnobotanists is Lydia Cabrera. Her work, El Monte, is a must read for anyone interested in plant diaspora. I love her suggestion of there being more spirits in the plants than in the heavens.
If we take off our western logical reasoning habits engrained into our thoughts from birth and think of plants as inextricably interwoven into the human existence then we can forget about the timelines of when Europeans arrived.
When we look at our relationships with plants as an eternal dance, one based on two sets of codependent complicated organisms then maybe aloes are truly native to Bermudians and corn to Floridians.
In the end, those who argue over semantics will be forgotten.
Those who embrace all plants in a manner of practical stewardship will ultimately be evolutionary survivors.
And when someone really figures out what a native plant is, please let me know – as long as the definition is not consistent with Avicennism logic, for that is Greek to me.
© 2012, Kevin Songer. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us