Friday, January 25, 2013

The Native Question

I was reading a number of fellow garden blogs this morning and to my delight found out that Jen at Three Dogs in a Garden has turned her interest to native plants. That got me thinking about my own journey with native plants which I will share with you today.


It goes back about eleven years when we bought the house we are presently living in. We bought the place for the property because it was large, natural looking, private and quiet. It was also old, neglected and needed a whole lot of work. My mind had already turned to the idea of natives and this place seemed the best place to try gardening with them. We did a survey of the trees and plants already here, thinking many of them to be native to the area only to be disappointed over and over again. I had a lot to learn.


I quickly discovered that I needed to learn the Latin names of any plant I wanted to grow in my garden. I have read in magazines that many people think that those who know the Latin names of plants are snobs and showing off. Well let me tell you that ain't so!  It is imperative, and I will never shy from saying the Latin plant names. I could have come home with all non-natives or exotics (as they are sometimes called) if I had not known the proper scientific name. For example, is the plant called cowslip that the Brit's love the same as the Virginia cowslip that we grow North America, which is also called the Virginia bluebell? And is it the same as the bluebell that the Brit's love? How would you know with certainty if you did not know the scientific name?




The search for native plants was also difficult as most of the nurseries in my area do not promote them. I had to look for specialty nurseries, especially at the beginning. It is still a challenge.


 At first I was very particular about growing plants that were native to Ontario, but as it was difficult for me to find the plants I extended my view to eastern Canada which quickly became eastern North America. Over the years I realized that so-called purist way of thinking was not going to work. As my interest and knowledge about horticulture deepened I came to understand that I needed to question what native means. We tend to assume that growing native means growing plants that have been here forever and that just isn't so. The common usage refers to all plants grown in North America or Ontario or Burlington prior to European settlement, and that is only 400 years ago. We cannot know that the same plants were here before that period. And if we look much further back we know that the earths continents used to lie much closer together, meaning that at one time the earth shared most plants in common. So who is to say that those wonderful Japanese plum trees never grew in Ontario at some point in time or that our native Jack in the Pulpit never grew in Japan.


It is also much more difficult to separate the native from the non-native. We are forever creating new cultivars and making hybrids between Japanese and American jack in the pulpits, for example. We are losing the purity of the plants.


Today's world  is much smaller than it used to be; we transport plants and animals across continents with speed and, as we are all aware, that creates problems we may never solve. Even without the jet planes or shipping tankers plant material gets transported to other areas of our world via wind, water, and animals. It has always been so and so how do you know with certainty what is native and what is not. Of course some of it grows better in Japan than it does in Canada, and I will never be able to grow orchids except in pots. There are differences; differences in climate, soil, predators and animals and insects that rely on that food source or place of shelter.


Today my preference is still to grow native plants that follow the modern criteria. I grow them for all the usual reasons. However I also grow beautiful peonies and roses and geraniums not found here and why should I not?

20 comments:

  1. Oczywiście, że w ogrodzie powinny być szczególnie rodzime rośliny. Jednak chciało by się też mieć inne, piękne, które mają szansę żyć w naszym środowisku. Pozdrawiam.
    Of course, in the garden are particularly native plants. But also wanted to have a different, beautiful, that have a chance to live in our environment. Yours.

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    1. It is hard not to bring some plants home from the garden nursery, they are too beautiful.

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  2. Your native plants look beautiful. I always learn the Latin names, because it's very useful. When I publish a photo of a plant on my blog I always give an English name, a Polish name and a Latin name, because Latin names are so universal. People from all over the world would be able to identify the plant.

    From your native plants, I know that the second one is geranium, because I have it in my Polish garden too :)

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    1. You are right, the geranium is g. maculatum. It gets about two feet tall with light pink flowers and blooms around May and June.

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  3. I never knew that it was snobbish if you used Latin names for your plants - I have been snobbish throughout my English gardening life then! I just find it very confusing with all these English common names, and started to learn the Latin names instead. For example bluebells as you mention, in Norway where I come from, a bluebell is Campanula rotundifolia, but here in Britain a bluebell is Hyacinthoides non-scripta but we also have Spanish bluebells here in Britain which is Hyacinthoides hispanica. Confusing! I am going to continue to be snobbish!
    Nice photo of your trillium, my Trillium cuneatum is on their way up, I have a big clump in my garden :-)

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    1. Perhaps this snobbism is restricted to North America as I have seen this attitude in print about three times.
      I can't believe your trillium is breaking ground. Mine won't be up until April. I look forward to your photos!

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  4. You are right Patty. I often find the common names very confusing. Sometimes one plant has several different common names, And sometimes one common name is used for several different plant species by different people. Not to mention all the different languages. You once commented on my blog:
    ‘Thank heavens for Linnaeus or we'd never be sure what plant people are talking about.’ I could not agree more.

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    1. Ha ha, my first quote! Thanks for adding to this interesting conversation Denise.

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  5. The importance of native plants has never been more telling than in these last few years of drought. They have really proved their resilience to me and I wouldn't be gardening in this climate without them!

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    1. Yes your photos do prove that. Your garden always seems to look really great.

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  6. I've been planting more and more natives because of their resilience and also because of how they relate to the insect world. Plus their are so many beautiful natives. Still, I have, and will continue to have, quite a few 'exotics'. Thanks for this excellent post. Who knows how, in the absence of humans, the plants community might be changing anyway. The ecosystem has never been static.

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    1. Thanks for visiting again Bill. We can never be sure what mother nature has in store for us, it will change with or without us as you say, so we can only try to get used to it.

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  7. Hi Patty, Thanks for the mention. You seem to be well ahead of me in your knowledge of natives. I have so much to learn about these plants. I take your point about confusing common names and I do try to use common names always in combination with Latin names.
    At this point in my learning, I am already mixed up about the question of true native/non-native. For instance, is the echinacea you are showing here the one I might find in growing wild in a field or is it the version of echinacea that I might find at the nursery? Another example: I find the original native of brown-eyed-susan is entirely different from the nursery version. I guess I care about the differences because it seems to me that along the line of the nursery plant's history some of the qualities of the original native were lost. Does this make any sense?

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    1. If are you trying to ensure having a specific native plant like echinacea, the plant purchased should be the species. Echinacea species native to our area include E. purpurea and E. pallida . There are 7 more echinacea that are more central Canada/US and eastern Canada/US.

      When you buy a cultivar (the word "cultivar" is short for "cultivated variety") of echinacea or other native they are 'domesticated', usually a strain or a sport and still a native. The cultivar is a selected form of a plant that has some desirable characteristic for cultivation. It is often given an attractive name by an enterprising horticulturist with the hope of commercial success. The desirable characteristic might be flower colour, growth habit, foliage characteristic, disease resistance or anything else. The cultivar may be an unusual form of a pure species that was discovered in the wild, a form that arose in a batch of seedlings in a nursery or a hybrid. So E. purpurea is native and could be found in the wild and E. purpurea "Magnus" is also native, it just has been played around with by human hands.

      The same thing is happening with your brown eyed susans. The variation in colour could be a natural phenomenon however because you are buying the plant from a nursery chances are it has different colouring because we have chosen that characteristic (especially if it is a cultivar "..") Mother Nature plays with plants too and many times seeds do not come true and look identical to the parent plant. So you get a variation in colour, size, shape.

      Your native plant from the nursery will be pretty darn close to the one growing in a field wild. Nature allows it to make subtle changes from time to time. You can feel good knowing it is a native plant. You can also feel good about the cultivated natives.

      Tho' hybrids are a bit confusing...

      Hope this helps,

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  8. I like the native plants very much and let them grow in the fall in the garden, just until seeding. I find them near the Falls as the prettiest though where they fill the meadows. You have a lot of knowledge on them and I have a casual appreciation of them. The insects are why I do not weed them out.

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    1. Where I live is too citified to find a natural area of flowers, apart from weedier plants. I think you are lucky to live so close to some wild areas.

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  9. I have followed the same steps you have taken to get to an appreciation for native plants in my garden. And I share the unease about defining "native" for our purposes. It's just not that easy. So, like you, I have a mix of plants, with the majority being what grew somewhere in eastern North America naturally 400 years ago, and some introduced plants from elsewhere. I just try to stay away from the really aggressive non-native thugs!

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    1. Great minds think alike :) My biggest aggressive non native I am dealing with - successfully- is garlic mustard.

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  10. Since I spend a lot of time battling non-native invasive plants, I am very prejudiced towards natives which are the only plants that can support native animals especially insects. I think the what is a native question just takes our eye off the target. Just get a plant of native origin or a cultivar of such a plant and you will be a step up from an Asian species. What is the big controversey about?

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    1. No controversy, just musing on the fact that one can never be sure if what is native now would have been native to the same area 2000 years ago or so.

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