You Calling Me a Purist?

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.

© 2011, Sue Reed. 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. Lynne says

    I volunteer in a native garden and enjoy the wildlife we’ve attracted. I use more natives than non in my own garden but am unwilling to give up some of those aliens.. however, I do watch them to see if there is any interaction with insects, birds, etc. in an effort to be sustainable. How will it all play out with global climate change? Do we start introducing plants from other zones?

  2. says

    I’m a purist moving forward, that is I’m not ripping out my mistakes from when I didn’t realize they were mistakes (unless they are a class I invasive –FLEPCC list) And I don’t apologize when people tell me I’m a green nut. I just tell them it’s too bad that I’m more concerned about the availability of potable water for their grandchildren than they are, especially since I have no offspring ;-)

    That generally gets them thinking in another direction!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Imagine My Disappointment

  3. says

    Sue, I LOVE this!
    This conversation that relegates native plant advocates to the status of “Meanie Greenie” “Purist” and worse, is EXACTLY the reason why I set up this blog and brought together this team of people for whom “Native Plant” is NOT a dirty word. I wanted us to have a discussion about the value of native plants in our landscapes without it devolving into an ugly shouting match like I’ve seen in so many places around the web, and at so many conferences and other venues.

    Thank you so much for saying this so clearly! I’m a purist, too :)
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Getting Inspiration for Your Wildlife Garden

    • says

      Thanks Carole. I really appreciate your support. I felt I was going out on a bit of a skinny limb with these thoughts, so it’s great to know you appreciate my perspective.

  4. says

    I was guilty of this yesterday during my interview with a newspaper garden reporter. I think I tried to reassure her several times that I wasn’t opposed to people using non-natives and was not a radical native plant gardener. But I am a purist and have achieved that in my own yard. So thank you for this great post, I feel like I know have some better language going forward.
    Heather recently posted..Native Plant of the Week- Ohio Spiderwort Tradescantia ohiensis

    • says

      Yes, isn’t it amazing how easy it is for us to deny our real beliefs in the face of anticipated criticism, rejection or worse? Thanks for the feedback!

  5. says

    Can we have a discussion on here–by someone more in the know than me–about how bad cultivars fo native platns might be? I suppose an extension of that conversation could be not letting natives cross pollinate with each other, thus increasing the gene pool vs. taking cutting or divisions and selling those. I have lots of native natives (a new term?) but I also have lots of cultivars of natives–and I don’t feel too bad about the latter. Make me feel bad about the latter. Good luck.
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Its Native Plant Time

  6. says

    Hi Benjamin. My perspective on the issues you raise is that I just wish to do what’s best for nature and the environment, based on the realization that we humans don’t have the capacity to grasp the amazing complexity of nature, and we’ve made rather a mess of things so far, and so perhaps we should step back a bit and let nature call more of the shots for a while. Not all the shots, no, just more. It would be great, perhaps with vast funding, if someday we could obtain enough scientific data to understand what makes one plant ecologically equivalent to another (equally valuable to whom? when? where? equal or equally useful leaf chemistry, bloom time, stamen length, stomata size, petiole flexibility, seed dispersal strategy, taste to a beetle or bee, etc. etc. etc). Would that be money well spent? I don’t know. Could we really know these answers? I sort of doubt it. To me, it seems a bit like asking an ant to understand anthropology. What I try to do instead is take what nature creates and make the most of it, and assign a lower priority to my other desires. In the end, however, we all have to figure out what works for ourselves.

  7. says

    You are among friends here ;~) Mine are indigenous, not native. And the garden leans steadily away from the commonorgarden aliens. The roses stay, but others that need ‘life support’ in summer, are fading away to be replaced by the viable. A taller version of … replacing the lawn (we never had!)
    Elephant’s Eye recently posted..Second blogaversary with favicon

  8. Suzanne says

    My objection to the “native purists” is the self-righteous assumption that they know better than everyone else about what is good for the planet. Please explain what your definition means – I am fairly well educated and I do not understand it. Because I am awaiting for definitive science that tells me what, with evidence, is best for our regional ecosystem, I am not planning on pulling nonnatives that make my bees, chickens or me happy. Now, I am sure I will receive all kinds of criticism for my skepticism but please note that I do not believe I am alone in it. Perhaps education based on fact rather than opinion without the invective would go a long way toward leading more of us toward “native”, whatever that is, habitats. BTW, I already mindlessly choose “natives” preferentially in my garden and feel like a complete sheep.

    • says

      Hi Suzanne. I appreciate your thoughts on this complex and sometimes emotion-laden subject. There is so much science available in support of the value of native plants to regional ecosystems. As I start, I would highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, and E. O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life. Beyond that there are tons of websites that discuss this topic with reasonable objectivity, including Audubon, the Sierra Club,The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and native plant societies in nearly every state. If you’re interested in learning about the link between healthy ecosystems and invasive plants (many of which appear “harmless” to us humans when we focus only on our own comfort and desires…including the feeding of “our” bees and chickens, which might be fed equally well, or better, by native plants), I recommend reading anything written by biologist Les Mehrhoff and visiting the website of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England ( There’s so much more; it’s a huge topic. I wish you all the best in your inquiry.

  9. says

    I guess I like the term native plant enthusiast. My main explanation is that my garden is a place for plants which feed and/or shelter either me or wildlife. My garden is more about me seeing wildlife than about me seeing plants. It works. Flowers bring beauty to gardens, but wildlife, in my book, is better than a beautiful flower which just sits there. We might as well have plastic flowers if they’re just for looking at (shoot me now if you must). The birds and butterflies in my garden are, many days, better than TV.

    I haven’t had anyone call me a native plant purist yet. Maybe it will happen. I’ll try to embrace it if/when it does because I’m pretty much a purist and maybe that’s as close as any of us will get.
    Alison Kerr | Loving Nature’s Garden recently posted..How to potter about in your garden

    • says

      Hi Alison. Yes, watching wildlife is the greatest. Yesterday a beautiful tiny bird — wish I could have identified it — landed on a branch of the striped maple tree that’s right outside my office window, with a HUGE green caterpillar dangling from its beak, and then proceeded to gobble it up. I marveled that the little guy could achieve lift-off after that meal!

    • says


      I like the term native plant enthusiast as well. I’ve labelled myself that. :)

      As much as I love the plants themselves, the interaction and activity of animals adds so much more interest and beauty.

  10. says

    I have begun to take note of non-natives that are not thriving and have been replacing them instead with natives…will I ever reach an all native status doubtful because I do love the flowers of the alien species in my garden, but I strive to have more natives (which I do) and use only natives now if I can find them…which is another issue…I do the best I can and try to make informed decisions…oh and invasives, those have been getting replaced as well…it is my area and my garden (well I share it with nature) but I don’t care what others think…I know I am doing what is best for the land I am steward of…again my motto is leave it better than you received it…a purist…in my dream world yes, in my practice working on it…heck I have been labeled one of those nature nuts and environmentalist radicals for a long time…I laugh and say yep I am and proud of it….
    Donna recently posted..Bloomin’ June

  11. Ruth Parnall says

    Sue –

    Far from recrimination and reproach, I hope your enlightened post passes before many eyes.

    I, for one, use native plants without apology simply because I love them – the way they look, their offering a sense of place, their service to ecosystems, and as an expression of landscape soils/geology/land use/climate/moisture. As Darrel Morrison has said, “If you have big bluestem, who needs Miscanthus?”

    I don’t get it why advocacy for native plants is such a big issue. Do we ever hear skepticism about people who specialize in gardens only of non-native plants? No. They are the focus of garden tours and endless books. I have been trying to figure out the defensiveness of the commentary against specialists in native plants. You probably came across the term “plant Nazis” in your internet search. In my opinion, those critics don’t go back far enough. I prefer to think of us more similar to human rights activists, restoring the damage done to Native Americans by European settlement. (And how well has that worked out, by the way…)

    To add comment to Benjamin’s query, the only time I use varieties, and especially the genetically modified cultivars of native species, is when I know exactly what it looks like and how it functions in the habitat. They usually have been selected or manipulated for more upright form, brighter color, bigger flowers, variegated foliage and can be quite unlike what. I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to get the heavy balls of flowers on Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ on a project rather than the much more subtle straight species. Or to learn that an available cultivar of New England aster is actually sterile, so it won’t regenerate itself in one’s meadow as would be welcomed.

    As you say, Sue, one needs to know the differences of blossom times, pollen, nectar, palatability, sterility, nesting, visibility, predators, structure, and much more to tell whether a non-native or horticulturally juiced-up native plant is suitable. That is why sticking to the template of the native landscape composition is so perfect, even if the much touted eye-popping color, season-long blossoms, or tidy growth habit are not part of it. My touchstone phrases: “Know the territory” (as Don Walker always taught his students at CSLD), “When in doubt, don’t,” and “Do no harm.”

    • says

      Thank you, Ruth, for expanding so clearly on my post’s message. Coincidentally, in the first draft of my article, I compared native plant advocacy to the civil rights, child labor and animal rights movements, all of which met with tremendous and heated opposition for many years before attitudes in the general populace gradually shifted. I edited out that section, to keep the piece at a manageable length. But you and I are on the same wavelength (again).

    • says

      “I, for one, use native plants without apology simply because I love them – the way they look, their offering a sense of place…”

      Sense of place is really important to me. I think it’s a concept more people need to be aware of. So many are searching for meaning and a sense of belonging. The more I learn about, and grow, natives the more in-tune I feel with my spot on the planet. We don’t need people all to be the same, differences are what make us who we are, and we don’t need a garden in Kansas to have the same flowers as a garden in New Jersey. Ecosystem differences and the variations which come with soils, moisture, light, etc are what makes each little place unique and special. Native plants, the millions of combinations they come in, and the wild things they support can make each and every garden unique, even from year to year. It creates a sense of place for us to belong in.
      Alison Kerr | Loving Nature’s Garden recently posted..How to potter about in your garden

  12. says

    I think Ruth’s comments echo my own thoughts. Why do native plant enthusiasts get such criticisms when people enthuse over “japanese style” gardens or collections of hydrangeas? I think it is partly because those that criticize native plant enthusiasts may feel defensive about their own gardens when speaking with such passionate folk. I’m not personally out to beat anyone up about their garden choices, just educate them about what their choices mean.

    There is also a huge perception that native plants are messy, not pretty! Unfortunately in my area, it is the invaders that cause message roadsides: the tangled masses of chinese privet and kudzu. Even though these plants are not native, uninformed folks just see how “wild” stuff can be messy. One of the best things I read lately said that “cultivated gardens” of early settlers were meant to show that man had “tamed” the land.

    Thanks for posting this, Sue.
    Ellen recently posted..The Lilies Among Us

    • says

      “There is also a huge perception that native plants are messy, not pretty! Unfortunately in my area, it is the invaders that cause message roadsides: the tangled masses of chinese privet and kudzu. Even though these plants are not native, uninformed folks just see how “wild” stuff can be messy.”

      Well, put Ellen…I, too, have thought that people base their opinions on the degraded “natural” areas that contain few natives at all.

  13. says

    Sue, I’m not in the same place as you are – I do feel some sense of ownership over my land and while I want to help wildlife and our ecosystem, I also feel that part of the point of a garden is artistic inspiration, and I think that comes, for me, from a mix. Native plants that bring wildlife and contribute, and some plants that are just for me. But I respect your tone and the fact that you’re fighting (or encouraging, more) in a civil, friendly, educating way for what you believe. I’m just not as selfless as you are. :) And I’m OK with that.

    • says

      Hi Genevieve, and thanks for your thoughtful note. I totally agree, we all have to determine our own values. I come to landscape and garden design from a non-traditional background, and as a result of that training I place a higher value on environmental benefits than on aesthetics or visual qualities. I do understand that lots of gardeners love what they love and can’t imagine letting go of their treasures, and I’m sure that, for the most part, all of us are doing what we feel is best. Anyway, I’m not really selfless. To act on my values, I don’t have to give up anything I cherish. Horticultural creations don’t move me at all. The plants that thrill me are the wild ones. For me, the fun is: “wow, look what nature did,” and not: “wow, look what I did.” But that’s just me. Basically I’m just trying to advocate for least harm.

      • says

        “I don’t have to give up anything I cherish. Horticultural creations don’t move me at all. The plants that thrill me are the wild ones.”

        Sue Reed, I think I found a kindred spirit! :)

  14. says

    Wow! ~smile~ Great post.

    As I read this, I thought back to a discussion on the Native Plant Forum *years ago* where the term “plant Nazi” was used…sigh. Luckily, I’ve rarely heard or read such comments…maybe because I’m staying away from places where I might encounter them. At one point, I thought, “…but, I *am* a purist!” …aside from a vegetable garden, my idea would be all natives. Currently, our two acres looks more like a European meadow more than anything. In our 3+ years here, I’ve made less progress than I’d have liked…but the transformation has begun. Who knows, what I could do in 20-30 years…hopefully I’ll get close to the ideal, and have something beautiful to boot—and, maybe it is wishful thinking, but I’d like to believe that others would recognize the beauty as well.

    Thank you for a great post and for sparking something inside of me. :)

    • says

      Thanks, David, for your positive feedback. And congrats on your meadow progress! Your comments make me wonder: how does a European meadow look different from an American meadow?

  15. says

    It is way too easy to fall victim to the game of trying to counter the arguments of the detractors, as you put it. That is a problem that pervades much of our society right now, and no better example can be seen than in politics, where if anyone ever does or says anything that might even be remotely offensive to anyone else, it is jumped on and used as a way to discredit and forces the person to go on the defensive. Personally I do not mind offending someone from time to time as a way of rejecting this culture of oversensitivity and political-correctness.

    I do tend to be more of a purist than not, and do not like that it has a negative connotation. I prefer to wear the label and instead of saying “I am not a purist, but…” I will usually instead say “I may be a bit of a purist, so…”.

    In almost all other uses for the word, it is considered a good thing, to demonstrate that you strive for perfection in your craft. So lets not worry about the detractors and instead take it back and own it proudly.

  16. Lynn says

    Thank you for expressing your views so clearly. I can’t see how anyone could deny the relationship between native plants and the wildlife they support.


  1. […] As a general rule, if you want to plant native, stick to the species plants, preferably local genotypes.   Garden cultivars, particularly those that are resistant to this or that, and those that distort the plants’ natural characteristics, are unlike to function as native, in my view.  Further, only the species plants from your area (not the other end of the state) are likely to be the acceptable host species for the specialized herbivores actually in your area, and if the plant is not supporting these animals, what use it is? (Yup, I’m a purist!) […]

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