07 December 2010

The return of the native...plant!

(Hepatica nobilis (liverwort) flowers in spring.

Followup note, Wednesday: I think we'll be continuing the discussion on natives for at least another post or two, but in the meantime, for a really good look at natives in Nova Scotia, do visit the website for the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens, at Acadia University in nearby Wolfville.

Some time ago, I was asked if I would do a post here explaining the difference between native and naturalized plants, as well as one on hybrids vs heirlooms. We plant geeks tend to bandy around such terms with such familiarity that we assume everyone has that same familiarity, which isn’t the case.

Aquilegia canadensis, Canada columbine

What defines a native plant? If something is native to an area, it means it was born or naturally occurring in that specific area. To compare myself to a plant, I was born in Newfoundland, so I’m a native of that fine and lovely province. However, I’ve lived most of my life to date in my parents’ home province of Nova Scotia, so I’m a naturalized Nova Scotian.

Hamamelis virginiana, native witchhazel

Plants may, of course, be native to more than one area, but I tend to go with Allan Armitage’s definition of something being native to North America. Thus although ironweed isn’t native to Nova Scotia, it is native to much of North America, and that’s good enough for me.

Yellow form of red-osier dogwood showing twigs in winter. (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea')

Let's get something clear right now: I love many, many native plants, and have dozens of them on my property, but I am absolutely NOT a purist who wants only natives in my garden.

A native white spruce (Picea glauca) along the border of our property.

The gardening world is rife with discussion on this topic, with many people considering it heresy to use anything BUT natives in their gardens. That’s fine for those who want to be militant, but that’s not me. And I love cultivars that have been developed using native plants, like the glorious echinaceas that have sprung from crossing native species such as E. purpurea and E. paradoxa.

Amelanchier foliage and flowers in spring.

Again, I bow to the wisdom of Allan Armitage, who in his fabulous book Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens (Timber Press) observes,

Cultivars are the gardeners’ candy store. If you like purple coneflower, a dozen choices now await you. Should cultivars be called native? I don’t know—should rap be called music? It is simply a matter of opinion. I believe garden-improved cultivars, both selections and hybrids, will only help mainstream gardeners further embrace the world of native plants.”

The flowers and foliage of bunchberry, Cornus canadensis.

Why choose native plants to add to your garden? Often they are very well adapted to local growing conditions and tougher than introduced species, but you do have to exercise common sense. Plant a Canada holly (Ilex verticillata) in a dry area of your garden, and it will not thrive, any more than white pine (Pinus strobus) will be happy beside the seashore. You have to site them where they do best. Happily, there are native plants for every growing condition.

Labrador violets, Viola labradorica
Many natives are low maintenance, not requiring a lot of pruning and fertilizing and other pampering to do well—when situated in the right conditions, again. Some are drought resistant, while others are suited for wet, or shady, or heavy clay, or seashore situations.

The delicate flowers and foliage of bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana.
Many are disease and pest resistant, (but not necessarily disease and pest proof). You’ll often hear them touted as requiring less in the way of pesticides, but in my garden, nothing gets any sort of pesticide, organic or conventional, so it’s not an argument I’m going to make.

Bee on flower of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata.
Quite often native pollinators, birds, and other types of wildlife have not adapted to using introduced/naturalized species for food purposes, so this is another great reason to include native species of trees, shrubs, and perennials in your plantings.

Waxwings feeding on the fruit of the American elder, Sambucus canadensis

Of course, there are always exceptions to this—think again of that humble dandelion, which many people curse but which provides nutrients for many a pollinator in early spring.

Flowers of highbush cranberry, Viburnum trilobum.
I hope that you’ll consider adding some native plants to your garden, although you may find, with a little research, that you already have quite a few in your plantings.

Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum.
I’m not going to preach at anyone—I don’t like it when I am preached at, so I try not to do it to anyone else.

Red trillium, T. erectum.
My job is to give information to other gardeners, and it's up to you what you do with it. I just hope you’ll enjoy whatever you plant, wherever you plant it!


  1. ...and I am so pleased you share your knowledge and enthusiasm; further, that you offer information in an articulate and encouraging way. The photos were great..loved the Red Trillium especially.

  2. Great discussion of native plants. I too am not a native purist. Plant diva extraordinaire Stephanie Cohen gives a whole lecture showing that native cultivars are usually just discovered in the wild, not hybridized, so they are as good as any native plant. May I humbly suggest reading my Thanksgiving blog post discussing why native plants are not just nice but essential to our survival according to Doug Tallamy's book Bringing Nature Home. Carolyn

  3. Dear Jodi, You make a wonderful case for growing natives, without preaching! Your article is clear and comprehensive. Your choice of photographs are excellent, and beautifully illustrate the points you make. I found myself making notes. Thank you. Pamela x

  4. What a lovely post, Jodi. I'm often at a loss to tell garden visitors if certain flowers in my garden are 'native' or 'naturalized.' I guess if they're waterwise, they get a free pass. :) Your Canadian Columbine looks exactly the Colorado Columbine that grows in my street garden. So, who knows? Perhaps I'm growing the Canadian version with an incorrect tag. Anyhoo, now you've got me jonesin' for a red trillium.

  5. That witch hazel is beautiful... I wish it would grow for me here.

  6. Great post! I'm with you on natives. What people need to watch out for are invasives. I try to do what I can to plant natives whenever possible but as long as a plant isn't invasive I have no issues with it finding a home in my garden. Some natives are way better than some exotics, panicums for example but that is just my opinion.

  7. A very easy to understand explanation and your pictures are wonderful.

  8. Anemone hepatica is my all time favourite spring flower and all three varieties of Trillium I adore as well as so many other plants you feature here. Such a pity they are not available and/or do not thrive here.

  9. Beautiful post. Just looking at those lovely photos would convince anyone that native plants are worth having. I've spied a few I'd like to add to my garden.

  10. This is a great post, Jodi, and a question about which I've had discussion with Carole Brown. I've got many of those same natives here, although I've not had success with bunchberry. I've killed it twice. :-( And I love it so.

  11. Fantastic post! I'm a huge fan of native plants too. I loved your spruce picture - it looked just lovely!

  12. I agree, my garden has many natives, but not entirely natives. I can't be ALL anything...too easily swayed with a pretty bloom. Well said Jodi, great post.

  13. Beautiful pictures! We traveled to Nova Scotia once. Beautiful place!

  14. Great explanation, Jodi. I love the shots of the red trillium and the swamp milkweed. I'm definitely no purist -- no vegetable gardener could be, certainly. But thanks to reading in the wide world of gardening and nature blogs, I am really learning to appreciate why I might wish to encourage and promote natives whenever I can. :)

  15. I like your approach to defining natives, Jodi. I've been tossing the issue around in my head all year...even pulled out 2 peonies to make room for natives, only to realize there is no other spot in my yard where I can grow them. They are long gone now, but I might add some new ones in the future. I do enjoy them, even though they aren't natives at all. As far as the cultivars, I like your explanation of how they can still be considered natives. Makes me feel like I'm not violating any strict rule about growing natives. Many of them bring wildlife to the garden and have most, if not all, of the same benefits.

  16. Natives plants are so beautiful! I love the red trillium! They are so unique and in a nice planting can rival any other!

  17. Hi Jodi~~ Great discussion.
    Natives definitely have their place--low maintenance, nice looking but I'm with you--not a purist and would never preach to anyone that they SHOULD this or that. It's a matter of choice. Our world is already too full of people standing on soap boxes telling everyone how things should be. Gardening is supposed to be fun! LOL

    My favorite native is the sword fern which stays green year round and really brightens shady spots. I wouldn't be without it. But there are plenty of natives I purposely avoid for one reason or another. It's just a matter of personal preference.

    As for cultivars I say bring 'em on. I love all the choices we have these days.


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