Native Plants

Are Native Plants Better?

Azalea

It’s the fashion to extol the virtues of native plants these days. However, instead of dividing plants into two groups, native (good) and exotic (bad), I’d like to extend the conversation to say that some plants, native and exotic, are desirable plants for our garden while others should be banned forever.

It is very hard to determine which plants are native. Are the seeds early cultures brought with them when crossing the Bering land bridge now native? When the Pilgrims arrived in the New World they brought plants with them—are these now native? Magnolia grandiflora is technically native to one small area in eastern North Carolina. Are the specimens we have in the Piedmont native or non-native? Plants move, usually from the west to the east. Are plants that grow well in California considered exotic here in North Carolina?

Now no one rants more about the evils of kudzu, Rosa multiflora, and Japanese honeysuckle than I do. But, I would submit that there are some undesirable native plants as well. Topping my list is Toxicodendron radicans, aka poison ivy. I would rather deal with English ivy, a plant I loathe, than poison ivy, although the English settlers enjoyed its fall color so much that they sent it back to England. Yes, birds like its seeds and I’m sure it provides something good for wildlife but keep me away from it.

Have you ever planted Oenothera specioca? The name and the pink flowers of evening primrose are charming until it spreads and spreads and spreads. I swear it has roots that can break up cement—but perhaps I exaggerate. Treat this plant, as you would mint: Confine it, do not nurture it, and do not fertilize it and perhaps you can keep it under control.

Cercis canadensis, our native redbud, is seedy. Now, no one enjoys redbuds in bloom in the early spring more than I do but they seed all over the place. You will have to decide whether you enjoy them enough to weed out their seedlings throughout the summer.

Most of us have had to cope with Parthenocissus quinquefolia in our gardens. Virginia creeper is ever present. Like poison ivy it turns a lovely fall color, it can climb on anything, it can grow thirty feet in one season, and its thick, sturdy roots make it difficult to pull out. All these qualities keep me from letting it survive in my garden.

If you have a neighbor you dislike, plant Liriodendron tulipifera, the native tulip poplar, as this tree throws off millions and millions of seedlings. Your neighbor will either submit to having a tulip poplar forest or will spend the whole summer engaged in weeding out the seedlings. Another awful native tree is Liquidambar styraciflua, the American sweet gum tree. Yes, it provides a wonderful habitat for wildlife, yes it has wonderful fall foliage, but this is a tree that is hard to live with in the garden. Dogs will eat its fruit and become sick. The hard spiky fruits are huge in number and hard to walk on.

The longer I garden the more I realize that gardens are unnatural creations. We are mixing plants that would never be found next to one another in the wild. No matter how tidy we are and no matter how much mulch we use, we still have to weed as Mother Nature has other plans for our garden.

I’d like us to be more realistic about the undesirable characteristics of all plants. I’d probably recommend the planting of Cornus kousa over our native dogwood, Cornus florida, because C. florida has some major problems. I’ll still plant sustainable roses, I’ll still savor my camellias and gardenias, but I’ll also spend the summer enjoying many of our native phlox, rudbeckias, and, my current passion, Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink). In the fall I’ll enjoy our native asters along with Camellia x ‘Snow Flurry’, which assures me that cool weather is sure to come.

My plea is this: Native plants are not necessarily desirable simply because they are native and exotic plants may have wonderful qualities that make them welcome in our gardens. Let’s think in terms of desirable and undesirable plants for our gardens. Birds might love our native poison ivy—but that doesn’t mean we have to.

Featured image – Deciduous Azalea, photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum


A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.