NATIVE OR NOTHING?

The hot recommendation of the day seems to be native plants among extension specialists and horticultural consultants. I have no problem with principles underlying these recommendations. It makes sense to use the indigenous, adapted species in a particular locale. After all, these plants must be a good choice because they have stood the test of time under the conditions prevalent at a particular site. My pet peeve is in the practical implementation of these principles.

First, what in blazes is a native plant? There is considerable confusion about it and lack of consensus on the definition. Is it a plant that has found its way to a site without the help of man? What about seed or other propagules that wash down a river and establish themselves naturally? Is it a plant that was present on a site before Europeans arrived in America or even before the time of American Indians? Or is it a plant that existed since the Pleistocene — about 10,000 years ago?

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Secondly, once we decide what a native plant is, where do we purchase native plants for the landscape? For homeowners, local garden centers and nurseries generally don't stock native plants, but they will sell plenty of juniper, yew, holly, ash, willow and silver maple. If recommendations are to be made, they should focus on plants that are readily available. If not, even though the person making the recommendation receives satisfaction for doing so, the person on the receiving end finds only frustration.

Thirdly, the connotation given to native plants is that they are best adapted to the local conditions and will exhibit sustainability on the landscape where other exotic, introduced species will not. This might be true in planting sites that are undisturbed — virgin land — but what about the normal building site where topsoil has been stripped away and soil is compacted?

Lastly, intended use of the site is an important criterion in choosing the right plant for whether native or introduced. It wouldn't be very practical to plant native prairie grasses in a backyard at a residence with kids who will be playing football on it. Introduced turfgrass species like tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass would better stand the abuse and serve the needs for this purpose.

I think the best solution is to compromise and combine areas of the landscape: some designated as areas for native plants; some native trees throughout; some to serve as areas with introduced turf; and some designated as garden areas with introduced species. The native-or-nothing mentality is not at all practical, but neither is a landscape devoid of native plants.

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