Native Plant Issues: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

National Planting Day

National Planting Day

This is a fall round up of current issues relating to native plants. They highlight some of the issues that native plant enthusiasts should address to move forward in our goal of more regionally appropriate natives being planted more widely.


Good: USDA is sponsoring the first ever National Planting Day on Saturday September 8th where they urge Americans to plant native plants. They also explain how a community garden can earn the designation of a ‘People’s Garden.’  They further urge people to get involved by planting natives “in a highly visible location in your community. This garden can be a demonstration garden, promoting the beauty and function of native plants to your neighbors.” I hope you can participate in the festivities.

Bad: The person who wrote this post on National Planting Day, apparently does not know what a native plant is.

“The term “native” refers to all species of plants naturally occurring, either presently or historically, in any ecosystem of the United States. You can conserve water, protect soil from erosion and create habitat for wildlife simply by planting native species. A native plant garden also can supply a community with beautiful flowers, and raise awareness about the importance of protecting and restoring local ecosystems for future generations.”

She is using the definition for naturalized, not native. Using this definition of “native,” could lead to the use of any invasive nonnative plant “presently” occurring in wild ecosystems, many of which were dispersed from cultivated material by natural means such as birds, water or wind.  A better definition would include the phrase “not introduced by humans after 1492.

II. The Arbor Day Foundation:

screenshot of the Arbor Day Foundation website

From the Arbor Day Foundation website

Good: The Arbor Day Foundation has played a big part to help people, cities and towns plant more trees since 1865 when J. Sterling Morton started this foundation. In Florida alone there are 165 Tree Cities.

Bad: Where I live in northern Florida, the 10 free trees offered are 3 redbuds, 4 dogwoods and 3 goldenraintrees, plus I could qualify for 2 crape myrtles. While the dogwoods and redbuds are native here, the goldenraintrees are on the watch list as invasive for central and south Florida and the crape myrtles are way over planted.  Besides, how well would trees grown in Nebraska do in Florida even if they were all native? See more on my post Arbor Day Foundation & Florida.

III. The City of Seattle & the Garden Professors

Seattle Landscapes

Seattle Landscapes screen from their file.

Good: The City of Seattle, WA posted a notice about an open house type of meeting to discuss suggested regulations for healthy landscapes including removing invasive plants and requiring contractors to plant 75% native plants in new planting sites. (Scroll to the bottom of this pdf file to see the landscape regulations.) It’s not clear whether this regulation would be for city-sponsored planting, developers, or homeowners.

Good: Linda Chalker-Scott of the Garden Professors’ blog posted a notice about this meeting and made an observation that the vast majority of Seattle natives are adapted for understory habitat that does not occur in local urban or suburban environments. There were many comments. I posted a link on the Florida Native Plant Society’s Facebook page as I often do from the garden professors’ blog, which covers a wide range of gardening topics.

I think the discussion did not keep in mind that these were “proposed regulations.” And here is a resource that shows a number of native hardwoods could be used among other natives and includes good information on how to create pockets of more natural habitats in the NW region including Seattle.

Ugly: Bert Cregg, another garden professor, from Michigan State University posted Are Natives the answer? Revisited where he started out discussing the proposed regulation over in Seattle and ended up attacking the whole native plant movement. He picked through the Washington State Native Plant Society’s website to find some misstatements. He did make some good points, which I’ll discuss below, but then goes on to say,

“Nonetheless, I think many in the native plant movement hurt their cause by parroting the same old lines without ever critically thinking about what they’re saying. Repeating a lie often enough times does not make it the truth.”

Then he continued,

“…but if they mean a ‘sense of place’ or a ‘connection to the natural environment’ then I can buy it. Many native activists, including Tallamy, run away from this argument – apparently it doesn’t sound scientific enough…”

I made a couple of comments on this post saying that Bert was off-base to be so dismissive of a whole native plant movement, but the various responses to my comments were also dismissive.

Ugly: I again posted the link on the FNPS Facebook page and this time our members were furious. Taryn Evans, president of one of the FNPS chapters, wrote an angry rebuttal on our blog: Are Native the Answer? Professor Cregg, Why Are You asking? She basically complained that if the smart horticultural professors are dissing the whole native plant movement then her work trying to convince people that it’s a good idea is undermined.

Ugly: Bert Cregg then posted yet another piece defending his stance So what’s your point? Saying among other things,

“Taryn was also critical of the tone of my post.  For me and my co-bloggers this space is the editorial page of our lives.  The blog is an opportunity to let our hair down a bit, vent on pet peeves, and sometimes shoot from the hip and play agent provocateur.”

He also claimed his criticism was mild and as more native planting ratios are mandated, that the native plant enthusiasts need to get used to criticism.

Good: Jeff Gilman the third garden professor decided to use Google+ hangout to clear the air and to have a live discussion on this topic. You can listen to the whole conversation, which was fairly cordial.

Bad: The discussion was between a bunch of professors and one member of FNPS, Laurie Sheldon. I was supposed to participate as well, but was booted out of the discussion during the introduction and could not log back in. But still, this was an unbalanced ratio of 7 to 1, where people insisted that there are very few native plants that would work well in urban environments and Bert claimed that there were no natives in Michigan that could work as street trees.

In checking later, I found a link from Bert’s colleague Mary Wilson at Michigan State where she lists “a few examples of native trees and shrubs to consider for Michigan landscapes.” Native plants are a great addition to the landscape to provide a thrifty, no-nonsense landscape for years to come.

Bad: Where was the Washington Native Plant Society in this discussion?

Where do we, as native plant enthusiasts, go from here?

Okay, let’s talk about Bert’s cherry-picked items from the WNPS website and his initial comments:

1) “Native plants are adapted to our climate of wet winters and dry summers.
True. But so are lots of non-natives.”

2) “Require less water than most non-natives once they are established.
Once again, adaptations such as drought tolerance are a function of the climate under which plants evolved.”

3) “Resist native pests and diseases better.
Sometimes. But unfortunately the days of worrying only about native pests are in the distant past.  Exotic pests are here and they are here to stay.”

4) “Improve water quality by needing less fertilizer and no pesticides.
OK, here’s where I get confused.  The reasoning in Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, is that native insects don’t feed on exotic plants, therefore if we plant exotics, native food pyramids will collapse and it will be the end of life as we know it.  So… if native insects won’t feed on exotic plants, why would exotics require more pesticide use?”

5) “Save resources and encourage a sense of Stewardship.
Ok, now maybe we’re getting somewhere.  Not sure why stewardship is capitalized here but if they mean a ‘sense of place’ or a ‘connection to the natural environment’ then I can buy it.”

If we ignore his dismissive remarks and look just at these statements, I think Bert has made valid points here. Don’t you?

So what can we learn from this hodgepodge?

1) Native plant enthusiasts need to pay attention to what’s going on in their own regions and participate in discussions about the need for natives in landscapes. Did anyone from WNPS attend Seattle’s open house meeting on their proposed regulations?
2) We all need to pay attention to online discussions and add our educated views in a civil manner.
3) We need to double check our online resources so people looking to pick apart the argument for natives won’t find any misstatements. As a result of this rowdy discussion, FNPS will be posting a piece on native plant myths on our blog and will also include this information on a permanent page on our website with links from several pages so our members and visitors will be more educated. We will also clean up our site so that leftover myths from earlier times are eliminated.
4) Maybe we need to find other arguments for using natives in our landscapes.*

If we do all this, maybe we can be thought of as serious, well-educated people who know what we are talking about.  And what a force we could be!

* Other arguments

As for better arguments for natives-only landscaping, Steve Woodmansee, FNPS president, provided a link to this study: Marketing time predicts naturalization of horticultural plants.

“We analyzed a unique set of data derived from the detailed sales catalogs (1887–1930) of the most important early Florida, USA, plant nursery (Royal Palm Nursery) to detect naturalization patterns of these horticultural plants in the state. Of the 1903 nonnative species sold by the nursery, 15% naturalized. The probability of plants becoming naturalized increases significantly with the number of years the plants were marketed. Plants that became invasive and naturalized were sold for an average of 19.6 and 14.8 years, respectively, compared to 6.8 years for non-naturalized plants, and the naturalization of plants sold for 30 years or more is 70%.”

This study was in south Florida and may not hold for other areas of the country, but in looking at these numbers, maybe we should not be planting ANY non-natives because the vast majority could naturalize into natural areas.

A spring side ecosystem

A lovely, native ecosystem at Crystal Springs Florida.

There were only 30% that have not naturalized after 30 years!  The sad thing is that these old horticultural plants were not vetted for invasiveness.  I’m fairly sure we still are not doing an adequate job of vetting new ones.

So if you plant only natives, they might escape from your yard, but that’s okay; they belong there and you will not have harmed the environment.

Do No Harm!

It’s the best argument FOR regional natives and their increased use in the landscape, even urban and suburban landscapes.

© 2012, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Excellent post! Thanks, Ginny, for pointing out the USDA’s wacky definition of “native”. I’ve gotten to the point of avoiding the use of the word “naturalized” in ecosystem terms and only use it in the context of humans as naturalized citizens of a country. That might cut down on the xenophobic comments that pop up like weeds as soon as you mention the word “native”.

    I particularly like the do no harm motto. With the long lag time of some invasives making their presence known, it would be prudent to vet all non-native plants before any introductions. Checking a plant’s record for invasiveness elsewhere would help. Phyllostachys spp. or running bamboo is a prime example. I fear the cold-hardy species will take over Canada as it is doing in your country. The risk management system (government regulations) currently in use is pretty well non-existent. Plant native and there’s no risk.

  2. says

    I too would like to see people offer better responses to “why plant natives?” than the usual “they don’t need as much water” reason. We have so much better information available to us now when answering that question.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Bird on a Worm

    • says

      Yes, we do know more about why using natives, even in urban and suburban landscapes, is important. We as a group need to update our message or clarify our comparisons.

      Thanks for everything you do, Ellen.

  3. says

    I never push natives for “they don’t need as much water” reasons. Mostly I talk about wildlife benefits–supporting the ecosystem, particularly birds and butterflies, which most people seem to really admire (and by default, these native plants help “nasty” wasps and bees and etc).
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..From the New Memoir

  4. says

    Ginny, great thoughtful post. Thanks. Love how you presented it with the “Good,” “Bad,” and “Ugly.” Arbor Day Foundation choices for southern NJ are exactly the same: redbuds, dogwoods, goldenraintrees, with the addition of Washington Hawthorn. What is with the Goldenraintree? Jeeezzz. Years ago, I tried to interact with Arbor Day Foundation and suggest they fine tune their regional choices AND offer all natives. My correspondence went into a black hole.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012

  5. Kevin Songer says

    Good post Ginny. Governments, local, state and federal are (in my opinion) the biggest threat to native plant work and education. These governments fund some of the largest landscape projects and create the largest media events surrounding plants and landscapes I think it all boils down to budgets. Staff is comfortable with maintenance for naturalized and landscape friendly plants. We have not educated staff to the benefits of natives for their budgets. Moreover, we use terms confusing to staff, terms having no real accounting metrics, like habitat and restoration. We need to rally the strategic planning troops and become a more effective lobby. I was told recently that As a native plant person all I represented in a large municipality’s eyes was that I was a member of a bunch of complainers. I am trying to change my approach and be more active in education. THis generation is lost. I see hope in the next?

    • says

      Thanks Kevin. But in our efforts to educate the government officials in charge of planting, we must be careful to not fall into the mantra of “They need less water. They need less pesticide.” Unless we are doing direct comparisons with a turfgrass lawn, for instance. In our role as the “complainers,” we need to make sure that our arguments are science-based, so the resisters to the native plant movement will have a more difficult time in countering our reasoning.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Native Plant Issues: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  6. says

    Ginny – thanks for sharing this info on what’s going on – I see similar “nativist” bashing going on by members of the Permaculture movement who are trying to justify the planting of Hardi Kiwi (an edible plant that appears to be coming invasive here in New England). Most of the arguments that I saw were based on incorrect statements that there is no scientific evidence that native plants support more native wildlife species. The bashers have not been keeping up with recent research done by Tallamy and other scientific groups that native wildlife attract much more biodiversity than exotic plants. Also, the issue is confusing for most people because what’s native here in my river valley in central MA is nothing like what’s native to Las Vegas or San Diego. Planting natives requires local knowledge of the plant communities in a given area, and that’s where we are lacking in the horticultural world (although that’s changing!). It also doesn’t help when the definitions of the terminology are not explained or are thrown about interchangeably. It just makes it easier for sceptics to “pick apart the argument” which encourages others to dismiss the whole movement based on a couple of soundbites. Kinda reminds me of political media spin!

    I like the “Do No Harm” mantra – that should appy to all of us, whether it be those who wish to disconnect from the global supply chain and live off their land, or those who simply want to help birds, wildlife or the environment as a whole.
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Japanese Beetles, Chickens and the Habitat Farm

    • says

      Hi Ellen,
      There are a few crops in Florida that are also invasive including both types of taro (Colocasia esculenta) and malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), especially in south Florida. In putting together a crop list to be included in our new organic vegetable book for Florida, my co-author and I put them on the “not recommended” list even though they obviously grow quite well here. (The book will be released in Feb. 2013.)

      I like the “Do no harm” philosophy, too. It’s similar to the old Girl Scout rule to leave the land in better shape than you found it.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Native Plant Issues: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    • says

      Hi Donna, Yes, I think the USDA could have done a better job. Maybe they need our help out here in cyberspace to get the word out for next year.

      Yes, the “Do no harm!” is our best argument for natives.

  7. says

    Great Piece, Ginny!

    My spiel to get people to plant natives and avoid pesticides is to point out the lower number of butterflies seen these days, relative to my youth. When I explain that the very plants that “weed and feed” makers are trying to kill are the larval hosts for our butterflies, those in my age group agree that in the 50s-60s before the “expansive pristine lawn” movement there were a lot more butterflies and fireflies. After my explanation most people at least aware and are giving it some thought. I had one 30-something girl vow to never use pesticides or weed killer again. Despite the “one person at a time” it still is rewarding to hear that someone pays attention.

    I also remind the vegetable gardening group how natives attract the pollinators that will help increase their yield. I also point out that bees aren’t the only pollinators, the wasps, flies and even love bugs (UHGGG) are pollinator workhorses. At the master gardener plant sale, given this type of explanation a lot buy a few natives to plant closeby the veggies to get the bugs working to their advantage.
    Loret recently posted..New Garden Visitor?

    • says

      Thanks Tina. I think this is a good forum to provide the talking points for native plant enthusiasts. That way when we are trying to help people convert their landscapes, we’ll have valid reasons and not just hype.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Fall edibles

  8. Bert Cregg says

    Hi Ginny:
    Some comments and a few points of clarification.

    On the first item, as a Federal agency the USDA is bound by the Executive Order on Invasive Species which defines natives as species that occur in an ecosystem “other than as a result of an introduction”. I suspect they tried to simplify the language for the National Planting day release when they substituted ‘naturally occurring’.

    On the Arbor Day Foundation, I am fairly certain they use contract nurseries in various locations for their tree sales. In any event, they have plenty of trained foresters on their staff that understand the importance of provenance and they would not send trees from northern seed sources to Florida or vice versa. But I certainly can’t fault the idea of supporting the Arbor Foundation, declining their trees, and buying trees from a local nursery.

    On the Google + Hangout discussion no one was ‘booted off’. These were straight and simple technical issues. If people watch the Youtube video, the audio sounds like Neil Armstrong on the moon. This is a new technology for most of us and we are dealing with some growing pains. I would have much preferred even numbers on each side. Having an imbalanced debate can work against the majority, too. As Wilt Chamberlain famously observed, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” That said, we did have a lively and cordial debate and I hope people will bear with the grainy images and tinny audio and take a look.

    I haven’t watched the video but I don’t think I said there were no natives that could be used as street trees here in Michigan. If I did, I misspoke. That might be true for Linda in the Northwest – if you look at the native tree list for King county you’d be hard pressed to find anything that could be recommended in good conscience as a street tree. We have a few more options here in Michigan. If we were looking for a street tree for Lansing or Detroit the list could include hackberry, honeylocust, Kentucky coffeetree, tulip poplar, swamp white oak, and red maple. But even this list makes urban foresters cringe because they think red maples are already over-planted, tulip poplar is weak-wooded, and hackberry is difficult to transplant. With regards to Mary Wilson’s comments, there is a distinction between street trees and landscape trees. Landscape trees could be anywhere on a residential or commercial landscape where they could receive irrigation or other care so there is broader list, in contrast to street trees found on street sides in tree lawns or tree pits. Street trees are subject to the ‘worst of the worst’ in terms of environmental conditions; minimal rooting volume, compacted soils, road salt, and reflected heat load; but they provided the ‘biggest bang’ in ecosystem services, especially cooling buildings and sidewalks.

    This has been an interesting discussion and clearly I have touched a nerve. I have to confess I have never been vilified so much in my life, which has been a little discomforting but also strangely flattering. When I met with Jeff and Linda earlier this week Jeff commented, “Wow, I’ve never been able to sit across the table from the devil incarnate before!” Fortunately, I work in academia where we spend most of our days telling one another how stupid the other is. People that seek to avoid criticism generally don’t do well in this line of work. Peer review forces us to critically examine our statements and sharpen our arguments. I was pleased and gratified to see some of the changes proposed for FNPS website and literature – why leave ‘low hanging fruit’ around for critics? While I didn’t appreciate some the comments made about me, if I’ve caused this group and others to strengthen their arguments and re-examine some of their assertions regarding natives, then the slings and arrows I’ve taken these past couple weeks haven’t been in vain.

    • says


      Thanks for your reply and maybe now we can call a truce and find some common ground.

      I did not mean to imply that someone purposefully booted me off the Google+ discussion, but clearly something happened and I was out.

      I think this rowdy discussion has served a purpose, which is why I wanted to summarize it along with the other two items about the USDA and the Arbor Day Foundation. I did give both of the groups credit for accomplishing good things, but wanted to call them out on places where they could do better.

      But most important, I wanted to alert the native plant enthusiasts that we, as a group, also need to clean up our own educational materials.

      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Fall edibles

  9. says

    Hi Ginny. I watched the google+ web discussion and was appalled by what looked like a complete gang up on native plant movement. In fact, I wrote a long response but after reading lots of other responses – and having other things to do – I didn’t post it. Not only was it very bad to have such a one-sided discussion but I really did not like the way things that are very controversial were offered as fact. I found this to be contrary to what I thought Garden Professors were supposed to be. It was unprofessional to say the least.

    As to the actual argument, there may be times that plants play a limited but important role in urban landscapes. For example, creating shade in very hot, dry locations is important. We have modified the environment so much that there might not be – in some limited cases – native trees that could fill in. If shade is needed one might argue that inorganic shade structures would be better but this is worth discussing and it is very important to carefully lay out parameters. What are the “ecosytem services” we are discussing? Is it just shade? Is it improved air quality? What about the critical need to create habitat in the most habitat poor places (cities)?

    And then the whole discussion of locally native plants really needs to be defined. Of course we may need to consider native plants that did not exist in the exact location of a city before the city was built. Here in southern California we put in coastal sage scrub plants in areas that may once have been woodland but with hydrology so changed, the area may no longer support a woodland. Coastal sage scrub may not be local to that exact site but it occurs near by and given the modifications to water availability it makes perfect sense.

    The two critical arguments for the use of native plants (as local as possible within the constraints of a highly modified environment) are that they provide important habitat, especially critical in cities, and are less likely to cause further habitat-loss and environmental degradation to remaining open space than non-native plants.

    Thanks for following up on this.

    • says

      You’ve made some good points about the shade and the locally native plants. Thanks for watching the discussion. I also found it amazingly one-sided. I think what it means for people like us, who would like to see more natives planted, is that we have a lot more educating and outreach to do. Thanks for writing.

    • says

      Hi Sue, I hope that this discussion helps us, the native plant enthusiasts, better define the reasons for natives. Then as we come up to opposition, we’re prepared with scientifically sound arguments.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Changes…

  10. Dee says

    The mainpoint the opposition missed was, invasive species are very very harmful to the environment. There are so many examples of how over run our natural areas are with purple loose strife & other harmful plants. It’s sad they missed this whole point. 7 against 1 during that call is unfair & completely slanted for the 7 to get their arguments in & gang up on the lonley 1. I’m sad things went the way they did but I hope some good comes out of this.

  11. says

    I work as an independent contractor landscaper/gardener for local government. I was trained as a classical landscaper but since becoming involved with the native plant society and master naturalists and wildlifers, my last 3 jobs have been more habitat restoration than manicured landscaping. After removing 11 dumptruck loads of privet from 35 acres (which didn’t make much of a dent), as well as Japanese honeysuckle and floribunda rose, we could see what did belong on the site and bought more indigenous, existing plants to accomodate each community. Then we planted a “garden” of native plants found on site, but which were cultivated into more “acceptable” plantings. I believe visitors to these public places can get a better idea of what natives can look like in their own home landscape, rather than some of the wild native gardens that look so unkempt , tending to discourage people from seeking natives. Everything will be irrigated for the first year, but as with all plants, if they are planted in the correct site, they will thrive without constant maintenance.


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