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Native Plants are Not Yard Ornaments

The transition from ornamental gardening (plants as ornaments) to ecological gardening (native plants as a functional part of an ecosystem to help biodiversity) is a long process for even earnest nature lovers. The only way we’ll ultimately move away from the cultural grip the 133 billion dollar Lawn & Garden industries have on how we manage our outdoor spaces is by ignoring the insistence to treat plants as objects that we collect and arrange to please our gardening style. The distinction is not always clear. Even the native plant world often focuses on the way plants look without mentioning their function. This omission defeats the purpose of using native plants to restore habitat. We ultimately need to change the way we talk about plants.

The horticulture trade used multiple straight species to make crazy coneflower flower colors for people to look at, not for the wildlife that has coevolved with the straight species to survive.

Way back in the days when I subscribed to Fine Gardening magazine for traditional gardening inspiration, they had a section on desirable exotic plant combinations that I looked forward each month to study so I could attempt to replicate the look in my own garden beds. These designs and the ones in the gardening books I pored over at the time were templates to me for creating the ideal garden. The idea was all about the way certain plants looked together with no mention of wildlife other than how to make sure nothing damaged the leaves of the yard ornaments (plants).

This spring bouquet I picked before I rewilded my yard didn’t have a single native plant in it. (I don’t pick my flowers anymore but leave them for pollinators)

I now consider the native plants growing together in my rewilded yard native plant communities, not plant combinations. One indicates function, the other form. It’s a subtle difference because in both cases the size and growth pattern of plants are evaluated so plants will play well together in some way. Yet, the difference in the two is immense -

  • The ornamental gardening ideal is 100% focused on looks. Plants are chosen for their decorative function. The history of this kind of gardening is closely associated with status and wealth.  

  • In an ecologically driven yard, biodiversity is the goal and choosing plants is about what they do, not what they look like. The color or shape of the flowers and leaves is considered in the context of how they might impact wildlife. Plant placement is about finding the right plant for the right place based on where it would grow in nature.

This is now one of the most beautiful sights in my yard - evidence that a native leaf cutter bee is using the soft leaves of a native redbud tree to make a nest!

This doesn’t mean looks and function are mutually exclusive in a rewilded yard. Native plants with similar growing needs that share a space are often lovely to look at, but that’s not the point of creating native plant communities. The reason is to create a habitat -

  • for butterflies, moths, and other insects to eat the leaves of the plants as part of their lifecycle

  • for pollinators to get energy from the nectar of the plant’s flowers

  • for bees to find nutrient rich flower pollen for their babies

  • for birds and other wildlife to forage for seeds on the plants

  • for native bees and other insects to nest in the stems of the plants

  • for birds to find the insects in the stems of the plants

  • for wildlife to seek cover and refuge underneath the dried stems of the plants

  • for the soil where the plants are growing to get the nutrients as the plants decompose

  • for the seeds and roots of the plants to continue creating new plants

None of these functions involve how the plants might please neighbors who have pesticide drenched, sterile petunias, growing in a sad sea of toxic dyed mulch (sorry, not sorry for the snark)

This section of my front yard pocket prairie happens to look beautiful, but it is also packed with native plants that offer essential food, shelter, nesting, and cover for wildlife.

I even see the separation of function in favor of looks from folks who are native plant advocates where certain plants in the same species are desired, and others are considered “common” or not worthy of space in our yards because they are not as showy. The difference between Geranium maculatum and Geranium caroliniana is a great example of this phenomenon.

It's easy to see why Geranium maculatum is the "showy" native geranium choice.

Geranium maculatum, also called spotted geranium, wild geranium, wood geranium, or simply crane’s-bill is a widely valued and desired native woodland perennial plant. From a human perspective, its lovely leaves and darling petite pink flowers are a welcome addition to a native garden. I have it growing in a few different plant communities in my yard – in the dry, partially sunny areas of my front yard it doesn’t get that big and grows along with native plants like dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata),  green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifollia), and seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea).

The bloom color of spotted geranium ranges from dark purple to pale pink - like this one growing in a dry, shady area along with the heartleaf foamflower in the background.

In a damper, shadier area of my backyard spotted geranium grows taller and makes a fabulous companion plant with other native spring ephemerals including woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and little sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

In this native plant combination worthy of a gardening magazine it's easy to see why spotted geranium, woodland phlox, and little sweet betsy are sought after native plant for their ornamental value.

Geranium caroliniana, also called Carolina geranium is an annual that typically grows in harsher conditions where there is little competition. It likes the hot, dry area of my front yard with lean soil where other tough natives grow such as annuals like partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata); biennials like common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); short-lived natives such as tickseed species (Coreopsis); perennials including Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum), rose mock vervain (Glandularia canadensis), American aloe (Agave virginica); and grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

This Carolina geranium is done blooming but in this small area you can see it is growing along with Georgia aster and partridge pea.

The flowers of the Carolina geranium are not showy at all but tiny and hard to see unless you are a wildlife macro photographer. Unlike the appealing spotted geranium, the homely Carolina geranium is targeted as a lawn weed and pulled up as being too weedy even by native plant gardeners. Extension services will helpfully explain what life-killing herbicides will help eradicate Carolina geranium from lawns and “landscape beds”. Even sites that list the benefits that Carolina geranium can offer to wildlife call its growing habit “weedy”.

Photographer Kevin Gaston perfectly captured the stunning beauty of the tiny Carolina geranium flowers in this photo. Unfortunately, since the flowers are too small to be noticeable, it has been categorized as a "weed".

Of the over 40 species of geranium on BONAP about half of them are exotic (and found in natural areas). Most of the native ones have limited ranges. The spotted geranium is native to eastern North America. Carolina geranium is the most common and is native in just about all of North America. In many states such as Florida, the Carolina geranium is the only native geranium species. Plant apps like iNaturalist or PictureThis can help identify one if you find it - so you can yank any non-natives and keep the native ones.

Carolina geranium is considered weedy because it grows in tough situations where little else grows It's all over the ground at my community garden - this one is snuggled up to my garden bed.

From a functional perspective wildlife finds the habitat value of both the native spotted geranium and the Carolina geranium the same. Bees and other pollinators visit the flowers; birds eat the seeds; and butterflies and moths use them as a host plant. If you check out the National Wildlife Federation site that ranks native plants in each zip code by the number of butterfly and moth species that use them as a host plant for their caterpillars, native geranium species are one of the top 10 host plants in metro Atlanta. They host 27 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars! The site makes NO distinction between the Carolina geranium (Geranium carolinianum) and spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum). This means the common and “weedy” Carolina geranium that grows everywhere is an equally valuable habitat plant as the more refined spotted geranium. It seems like a win-win for nature to let the Carolina geranium just be wherever you're trying to restore habitat.

Carolina geranium is no more “weedy” than the other native plants in my yard including the rose mock vervain (Glandularia canadensis), lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), or America aloe (Agave virginica) its growing with in the video below.

As for the weediness of the Carolina geranium, I’ll never forget a sweet elderly neighbor who was walking by as I was planting pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) back when I first started transitioning to native plants. She stopped and was a bit confused when she realized I was not pulling it up along an area I had removed our lawn but was planting it. She laughed in a bless-your-heart sort of way at my efforts and gently said, “why those look just like the weeds my daddy got rid of back in Alabama!”. This was years ago, and my naturescaped yard is now chock full of “weedy” and valuable native habitat plants that rarely get the love they deserve.

The pink evening primrose is another “weed” that is welcome in my yard for its habitat value. It hosts 19 species of butterflies and moths including the white-lined sphinx moth! (It also happens to be a lovely plant to look at!)

I’m not trying to fit nature into a landscape style that destroys nature. I'm changing the rules of how I landscape. My outside space is a wildlife sanctuary and there are no longer “garden” areas or "landscape beds" – so every native plant that adds habitat value is welcome including Carolina geranium

This pocket prairie in my front yard is filled with valuable native plants that pull their weight. There are no freeloading non-native plant "ornaments" to be found here. (The photo was taken in the fall)

Notes

 

  • Native geraniums have a common name with “crane’s-bill” attached to them because the distinctive seeds look like the long beak of a crane. For example geranium maculatum is often referred to as simply crane’s-bill, geranium caroliniana is called Carolina crane’s-bill, Geranium bicknellii is called northern crane's-bill, and Geranium richardsonii is called white crane's bill. I used the common names above, but to avoid confusion, I didn’t refer to either species of geranium profiled as crane’s-bill in this post.

You can see in this close-up of a Geranium caroliniana seedhead why one of the common names is Carolina crane's-bill geranium
  • There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful. (I also post similar nature focused content on IG @nurture.native.nature and FB at Nurture Native Nature)

 

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hacklin22
Apr 21

Great info and totally correct- we need to change the narrative about the entire point of plants. It’s going to take a while, but people like you educating others is a great step! Thank you for all that you do. - Jaclyn

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