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The Avid Gardener: Using Native Plants

by and on August 11, 2020 5:00 AM

"Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours. I want Texas to look like Texas and Vermont to look like Vermont.” — Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, along with actress Helen Hayes, founded an organization in 1982 to protect and preserve North America’s native plants and natural landscapes.

Known as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, its public gardens in Texas feature woodlands and sweeping meadows, and in 2006 it became an organized research unit of The University of Texas at Austin.

The center’s invaluable website still features a wonderful illustrated national native plant database with a wealth of information, including the characteristics, bloom information, distribution (where the plant can be found), growing conditions, value to beneficial insects, and propagation of native plants. A feature called “Mr. Smarty Plants” even answers gardening questions.

The term “native” can sometimes be confusing to gardeners, and to say that it is difficult to find a generally accepted definition of “native” would be an understatement. On one site I saw 10 different definitions offered.

In the end, the one that seemed most straightforward was given by the National Wildlife Federation. They say, “a native plant (or ‘straight species’) occurs naturally in a given location or region.” There have been debates about when that began (all the way back to when the Europeans colonized here?) and where it grows naturally now (Mid-Atlantic or Pennsylvania?)

To complicate matters further, there are also “nativars.” A nativar is a natural variant that was found in the wild and brought into cultivation, but it could more often have been developed by a plant breeder. Examples range from plants with bright foliage, double flower heads, and other atypical features, such as being more upright, sterile — unable to produce seeds — or disease resistant.

For example, a purple coneflower is the native, but a Pink Double Delight might be a name for its bright pink double-flower nativar. Flashy sells, but are these plants as beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife?

The answer is that it’s complicated. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware, who many know from his ground-breaking books, “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope,” has done extensive research in this area. In the past he teamed up with researchers at the Mt. Cuba Center, a Delaware botanic garden specializing in native plants, to study cultivated varieties of native plants to learn how different traits appeal to caterpillars, critical to the diets of breeding birds. There were mixed results. Variegated leaves, double flowers, and disease resistance all brought pluses and minuses within the study.

Tallamy emphasized that planting a landscape with nativars only is to “...load the landscape with plants that have no genetic variability,” since many are propagated by cloning.

The big question is whether native plants are the best choice for someone’s garden.

From what I’ve read the trend seems to be heavily favoring natives, mainly for their draw for pollinators and beneficial insects. This, to me, seems a good thing.

However, native plants are not maintenance free. They will get bugs and diseases. Spent foliage will have to be cut down and its spread managed because some can become aggressive.

The message is that gardeners can’t just plant any native anywhere and expect it to perform to perfection, especially because what once were natural ranges for plants have changed over time with people. It also may be impractical for homeowners to rip out all their non-native plantings and substitute native, though some have done so. The mantra of “right plant for right place” is true for natives as with all plants.

A compromise might be to phase in natives for a 50-50 mix in what’s known as a “naturalistic” garden. These natives would be truly adapted to our climate and soil and beneficial to birds, insects, butterflies and other local wildlife.

To move in this direction, a good place to begin is to look on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website for nurseries and sources that specialize in the sale of local native plants. The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society is also an invaluable source of information.

Another interesting source is Susan Skender’s “Ultra-Local Native Plants of South Central Pennsylvania.” Skender is a Cumberland County Master Gardener who did extensive research in narrowing down native plant groups based on many variables. It’s a little south of us but still an interesting list to peruse and compare with others.

In a final nod to Tallamy, I turn to a book he endorsed called “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” by Rainer and West. It takes a look at nature as it nostalgically once existed — organized loosely into categories of grasslands, woodlands and shrublands, as well as forests — and offers a complete plan for recreating these types of natural plant communities in a variety of well-matched spaces.

The idea is to use three layers: structural plants, seasonal themed plants, and ground covers, all planted at the same time. This plays on the native theme by grouping plants suited to a site, though they may not all be local natives. It also, importantly, addresses concerns like the appearance of “wildness” and issues of maintenance. It’s a very optimistic look at the possibilities for restoration of our natural spaces.

While there will always be a tug of war between the desire for gardens created artificially for human enjoyment and the necessity for supporting local ecosystems, the addition of native plants by home gardeners may provide a small step in helping “bring nature home.”

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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