Why I'm a Fan of Common Native Plants
Updated: May 9, 2021
The traditional gardening world often fetishizes exotic and rare plants. The latest trends trickle down to homeowners. Big box and specialty nurseries respond and offer plants that are expensive, often designed in a lab or imported from far-away places, stand out in the landscape (like the huge leaves of banana trees), and may require special effort to keep alive (like canna bulbs that need to be dug up in the winter in cold climates). They also might be bred to have an exotic color and form (like double black flowers) or to unnaturally rebloom.
There’s a whiff of this kind of hard-to-find plant lust in the native plant world. For example, different varieties of native azaleas, orchids, and trilliums are victims of how unusual they are. Not only are they highly sought after at native plants sales, but often-endangered native plants are poached in the wild. This is the exact reason I don't give a location when I post pictures on social media of native plants that are not from my yard. Native plant gardening has great potential to become just as fussy as ornamental gardening when the focus becomes acquiring the obscure variety, not the more common one.
When we as native plant gardeners covet the unusual native azalea or trillium, we’re replicating the reason nurseries are filled with non-native exotic plants that are useless to our ecosystem. I must remind myself not to get stuck on unusual plants that are hard to find at local native plant sales or nurseries because this is the opposite of what naturescaping is about. Chances are, the fact that I can't find them means they are not meant to grow where I live, don’t transplant well and/or wouldn’t be particularly valuable to the wildlife in my yard.
If our goal is to restore nature by planting native plants, the new “it” plants need to be the common ones that are naturally adaptive to a variety of conditions. This is one reason wild strawberry (fragaria virginiana) is the plant I generously share and the first plant I put in my mini nature center kiosk. We can make a point of generously gifting to friends and neighbors the assertive groundcovers that will quickly colonize a sunny rocky slope, moist dark corner or shady dry area. We can also sing the praises of the non-toxic plants that pets and kids can scamper through or that thrive in tough right-of-way strips.
Gardeners are often drawn to a challenge and enjoy winning a little victory over nature, but most homeowners just want to landscape their yard and be done with it. As native plant gardeners, sharing our knowledge is an easy way to nurture our mission of coexisting with nature. We’re the ones who are the most likely to influence non-gardeners to use native plants in their yard because we might be the only gardener they know.
We might also be the one of the few native plant gardeners our ornamental gardening friends know. We can encourage them switch out their non-native plants for interesting. but not rare, native ones. Plants like the stunning native copper iris (iris fulva) or ornamental and exotic-looking native passionflower vine (passiflora incarnata) make the task an easy one.
I’m competing with a culture of admiration for frankenplants bred for qualities inconsistent with supporting wildlife. My idea is to grow and share native plants to make it as easy as possible for everyone to add native plants to the landscape, not to replace exotic non-natives with exotic natives.