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?