One of my least favorite sentences starts out: “Oh, you’re just one of those native plant purists who …” and ends with phrases like: “… wants to ship all non-natives back to where they came from.… is trying to recreate some sort of mythical pristine Eden.… believes that anyone who wants some pretty flowers in their yard is evil.… hates/fears all aliens and immigrants.” Etc. etc. etc.
Most of us have heard countless variations on this theme. Even though no native plant enthusiast actually holds any of these extreme positions, people who oppose the use of native plants have found a handy label to use when they want to disarm and dismiss those of us who believe in the benefits of native plants.
They call us purists, a powerful, pejorative word that neatly implies we’re all a bunch of radical fringe whack-jobs who don’t understand real life and aren’t real gardeners. We are called green freaks, shrieking dogmatists, arrogant dreamers, self-righteous zealots and pious members of the church of green. (Amazingly, all of these labels – in various combinations – were actually found during a half-hour search of the blogosphere.)
Worse than this though, is my absolute least favorite sentence. This is the one that begins: “I’m no native plant purist, but I just…..” and then rushes to a comforting sort of conclusion. However the sentence ends, its meaning is always the same. The speaker is trying to sooth and reassure, to establish credibility as a sensible person, and to distance him- or herself from outrageous beliefs that actually exist only in the minds of native plant detractors.
It’s unclear to me how these detractors have so successfully defined the terms of the conversation, putting native plant advocates on the defensive even before we start to talk. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that lately this expression has been showing up everywhere. Perhaps you’ve even uttered it yourself. I know I have. Not too long ago, at a conference where I was speaking, I heard myself saying those minimizing words: “Now, believe me, I’m not a native plant purist, but….” as I so smoothly implied to my audience that they can trust me and no, I’m not one of those kooks who think every plant in the landscape should be a native plant. I’ve regretted that moment ever since.
Here’s why: I actually do believe that, in an ideal world, every plant in our domesticated landscapes would be a native plant. (And, just to clarify, by native plant I mean a species that exists because it has co-evolved with other organisms as a contributing member in a regional ecosystem.) My dream landscape is one that contains some amount of food plants for us humans, vast amounts of native plants thriving in robust ecosystems all around the house – or even on it – and no others. So. There. I’ve said it. That’s my ideal, and I’m sticking to it.
Are you now asking, “But how could this ever work? What about my daffodils? My lilacs, my dahlias, my irises and sedums?” Well, achieving this ideal would certainly involve a shift in our definitions and expectations. For starters, we might stop thinking that plants belong to us, that their purpose in life is to entertain and charm us. Instead, we could garden in full recognition of the profound truth that plants have a much more important purpose: as the base of infinitely complex food webs that we can never fully understand, they support life on the planet.
Further, plants grow in ecosystems with other plants and organisms, in intricate relationships of support and competition, most of which we don’t comprehend even when they’re right in front of us. How can we know which plants are doing what for whom, and why, and what will happen if they’re not there? Non-native plants are rarely, if ever, true ecological equivalent of native plants. The same holds true for hybrids, cultivars and “nativars” (a new term surely coined by a marketing department).
In practice, living this ideal would involve taking ourselves out of the center of the picture. Not out of the picture entirely, no, just out of the center. Difficult, but do-able. We can still have gardens full of beauty and sensual pleasure. However, in place of an attitude that says, “I’ll try to use some natives, if possible…”, we could approach every garden decision with the question, “Is there some very compelling reason not to use a native plant here?”
In every part of every garden and landscape, we could seek to plant a native first, and choose a non-native only when there’s no native that could possibly work in its place. We could aim to make natives always the best choice, and non-natives a very distant second option.
I admit that this is a dream, a paradigm, a starting point, a place to begin my negotiation with reality. As a landscape designer, do I achieve this ideal in every project? Ha. Have I achieved it in any project? Sadly, I have to admit, no, not even at my own home. Will I ever achieve it fully? Unlikely, given the depth of our attachment to conventions of garden beauty, and the disturbing existence of so many fiercely invasive plants (the majority of which, by the way, started out as “harmless” ornamentals).
Of course the ideal must be adjusted in response to client demands, spousal objections, neighborhood fears, cherished traditions, human nature, local politics, and the limits of the natural world. Of course our real-life actions will have to include compromise. But should my starting position be concession? I think not.
So, in full recognition of the reproach that may now rain down upon me, and despite the efforts of native plant opposers to define this as a slur, I’m proud to say that in my deepest beliefs and hopes, I am a native plant purist. No apologies, no shame and no buts about it.
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