A discussion that Chris and I get into on occasion is, how can gardeners grow native plants when there aren’t native plants to buy?
Ok, sure, there are native plants to buy but the diversity of native plants is terrible, as you will see further into the discussion below. To take this idea even further, some gardeners and ecologists think gardeners should be growing by ecoregion or habitat type, not by USDA hardiness zone, which is the prominent method of identifying plants that will grow within a certain gardening region. Some recent discussions on social media prompted me to really ruminate on this issue and write about it, so let’s dive into a really complicated and often vitriolic topic in the gardening world—Native Plants!!
Caveats before I start: I’m writing from a mostly Texas viewpoint but you can easily extrapolate this to many other states and regions. Also, I grow native and non-native plants, though I have been focusing on native plants more heavily in recent years. Sorry, I’m not going to give up my brugmansias! Ok, onward…
The Issues at Hand
- A diverse and locally native plant landscape for the home gardener is not easily within reach to the majority of home gardeners.
- Nursery stock to create a diverse home landscape for gardeners on the scale touted by native plant enthusiasts doesn’t exist and is consistently unsupported by the horticulture industry.
- Most homeowners will never delve into gardening, native or otherwise.
- Gardeners should be intensely focusing on preserving large, existing tracts of undeveloped land within the suburban/urban/wildland interfaces to counteract the shortcomings of native plant home landscapes.
The Thought Process & the Problem with It
First off, I don’t think this thought process, growing natives for your specific region and habitat, is entirely wrong and actually like the idea of everyone growing regionally adapted native plants. The problem is it is nearly impossible to do for home gardeners. I can go to any of the four or five main independent nurseries that sell plants in the greater Houston area and each will have a separate (small) section for native plants and most will carry a similar crop of species between them that are available for sale, likely purchased from the same propagator. Are there variations in what is available? Yes, sometimes I’ll find a special jewel of a plant to buy. I recall finding the endangered Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri, Winkler’s blanket flower, at a nursery several years ago but have never seen it for sale again. I might add, I’m mostly talking about perennial herbaceous species but we could also talk about shrubs and trees as well when discussing this issue. I get quite tired of asking about native hawthorn species and being taken to the row of Indian hawthorn, Rhaphiolepis indica. *insert heavy sigh*
Texas is a massive state. This wide geographic expanse means there are drastic differences in habitat types throughout the state. I live on the edge of the Piney Woods and Post Oak Savannah and really close to the Gulf Prairies and Marshes. What grows here is a lot different than what grows over in Austin and well, if you’ve ever been to Austin you know that what grows east and west of I-35 can be vastly different because the soil types are different. Clearly what grows in El Paso and is native there is not going to be the same as what grows in Beaumont and is native there. The Chihuahuan desert plants in El Paso are much more likely to be plants you could find in Mexico and New Mexico while the humid, sub-tropical species in Beaumont will be plants you can also find in Louisiana and other parts of the Deep South.
And yet if you go to nurseries in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, or DFW, you will find a lot of cross-over in species that may or may not do well in more than one of these locations. Will some plants sold in both Dallas and Houston work in both locations? Yep! There are plenty of native plants that have a wide range throughout the state. But both areas have different amounts of precipitation, soils, and cold weather each year and plants will act differently in each location. More drastic would be plants sold in San Antonio and Austin but also sold in Houston locations. I’m thinking of blackfoot daisy, Melampodium leucanthum, which I have killed multiple plants of after we built our flower beds a decade ago, before I realized that Houston was too wet for them. They were marketed as native, because they are native within the state, but I certainly didn’t pull out a range map while looking up my purchase at that time and didn’t know better. I would guess that most other gardeners aren’t doing that either. Why are they even sold here? Could someone make them work? Of course. Lots of people amend their beds and do things to make plants work. But the average home gardener isn’t doing that and they are going to plant them in their gardens under the presumption they are native to this region of the state and will work. When they inevitably die in Houston because we went from drought to flood within a week, they are going to be frustrated by the fact they planted native plants and the plants just didn’t work or the gardener will say that they “killed it”. In reality, the plant had no business being grown in a garden in Houston.
These scenarios are where I find the push for growing regional natives problematic. There’s no there there.
You can’t grow a diverse, regionally adapted landscape if the plant material isn’t available.
What’s a Native Plant?
Even more fun to argue in the gardening world is what is considered a native plant? Generally it is a species that existed in a location before pre-Columbian times and functions as part of the ecosystem as a whole. Some would argue that even the native peoples throughout the Americas were introducing and moving plants around, and yes, that’s true, but I don’t know that we have a grasp on how much of that occurred and how much lead to complete ecosystem overhauls (if you do, please send me the papers to read!). There are definite disjunct plant populations within Texas that occur in a couple of locales and then random locales in south America. Both are considered native populations. How did they get there? Good question. That said, we do know European colonization contributed to the massive destruction of native plant species and ecosystems over the last 400 years so it’s pretty easy to pinpoint Europeans as the source of our issues now. And the introduction of non-natives is on-going now within the horticulture industry. A global movement of plants in short amounts of time is bound to have consequences, not just in the US.
Ok, so let’s narrow down on this just a bit. On social media, blogs, and even in magazines you will very likely come across listicles that announce something like, the Top 10 Plants for Your Native Plant Garden. Invariably there will be a host of generic native plants (which are good plants on the whole) and maybe one or two regional plants. One plant that comes to mind for me is purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. Purple coneflower is native to a wide swath of eastern North America. However, in Texas it is only native to a few counties in the north/north east part of the state and it is relatively rare. And yet in every box store and native plant nursery you are likely to see purple coneflower for sale in Texas. Purple coneflower is a perfectly fine plant, I have one in my garden, and it isn’t escaping and expanding its range in Texas because of its introduction into gardens. But if you were someone wanting regional native plants, you wouldn’t be planting this one, would you? But what’s the alternative? The native echinacea species in our state are much harder to find in cultivation and typically you have to find them at a native plant sale put on by one of the various native plant groups or environmental groups in the state, maybe seasonally at a specialized nursery. Certainly not in bulk. Sure, you can find seeds online but then you would also need to have the know-how to look for those seeds and again, more gardeners aren’t tracking that sort of thing down.
The flip side of this would be the recent reconsideration of Gaillardia pulchella, blanketflower, as not being native east of the Mississippi. It’s very common in Florida, especially along roadsides and beach landscapes and for years has been sold as a native plant. Recent research, seen here from FANN, shows that the historic record does not support that the plant was in these landscapes pre-European contact. While FANN, Florida Native Plant Society, and other entities aren’t totally doing away with recommending the plant to home gardeners because it isn’t invasive and is considered Florida Friendly, they are definitely pulling back from recommendations to use it in any kind of ecosystem restoration work.
Here we have two entwined issues that we can pull apart and apply to multiple plants throughout the country: 1) Plants that are recommended widely as native to a broader region or even half the country when in reality they aren’t and 2) Plants that thought to be native to a broader range and in reality they were only native to more specific region.
So, how should we really be thinking of native plants? Should we be splitting it between how plants are used for gardening versus ecosystem restoration? Does it even matter what a gardener plants? What are the consequences, if any, down the line? I’ll delve more into this further down.
Native Plants in Media
On the listicle thread from above, some of this native plant problem goes back to how native plants are shared and talked about on social media, and in magazines, books, and radio shows/podcasts. In books and magazines they are heavily skewed towards plants from the mid-west to mid-Atlantic region. And yes, there are regional books and Texas has its share, but there are problems with those, too. I feel like California and the desert states manage to sneak by this problem because they are such a different habitat type that they’ve built out decent media to cover their ecological niches better, but maybe that’s just my perspective looking in. From that area? Tell me how your books and magazines handle native plant communication for gardeners.
For roughly half of the country, there is heavy media influence disseminating out information to gardeners from the horticulture industry that is coming from the mid-west and mid-Atlantic states. I got a little grumpy a few months ago with a designer online that I respect who pushes the envelope on native plant gardening, when they made some comments about zinnias not being native and only being a nectar source for generalist pollinator species and not a larval host plant at all. There was two reasons I was grumpy, the first was that while I know they were talking about Zinnia elegans, the common garden zinnia seen in flower beds through the US and world, however, it is a native to Mexico. And if you are someone who believes that plants don’t acknowledge borders, then growing them in the southwestern US wouldn’t be that far fetched. Which brings me an actual zinnia native to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas—Zinnia grandiflora, which is the other part of my grumpiness. Broad statements like that, just aren’t true and aren’t worth making without considering your (the designer in this instance) audience.
Social media has made the accessibility of native plants far broader than it used to be even a decade ago with blogs, and certainly broader than 30+ years ago when magazines and PBS garden shows were all we had access to outside of a local native plant society. It behooves those on social media espousing the virtues of native plants to know their audience. Even if you are a niche native plant garden designer, you will attract folks interested in what you have to say and generalizations don’t work. Not only are you failing the audience, you are failing the native plants that are available in other regions of the country that may actually provide the wildlife value you say doesn’t apply.
There is something to be said for the work many folks have done to shine a light on our local ecosystems on social media, especially the folks working in the south, which has for too long suffered neglect in the gardening world. But I often wonder how far that reach actually is and what the greater impacts are to gardeners and the horticulture industry. I tend to find far more value in the educational information coming from botanists and ecologists sharing their work than from most mainstream gardeners or designers, when specifically talking about native plants.
The horticulture and media industry is far behind in the native plant realm.
Native Home Garden vs Habitat Restoration
By far, most home gardeners are not habitat restorationists. Despite Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park efforts and social media campaigns, the majority of home gardeners don’t have the time, money, or inclination to convert their front yard to pollinator habitat. Sure some folks attempt to do the entire re-design of their yards, and there are some stellar examples out there, but most gardeners are going to purchase a plant or two that is marked as pollinator friendly and/or native down at their local garden center and plop it into their flower beds or a container and call it a day. Many of the folks who have spent the time to convert their entire landscapes into a native habitat landscape have taken years to work on it, unless they’ve hired a designer and installer to do it all. And that’s typically more money than most people are willing to put into doing, so they will be working with their own skills and know-how, whatever level that is.
I think we also need to acknowledge that while our gardens can be considered habitat, we have to also consider the exact impact one suburban front or back yard is actually going to do overall, ecosystem wise. Which is where I think the Homegrown National Park idea isn’t quite adequate. Or maybe I’m just not as optimistic that we will be converting and changing people’s minds to do more with their yards than a St. Augustine lawn. How good of a native plant garden is it if you are an island of ecosystem in a desert of lawn? What good is it to the wildlife if there is no connectivity to other native ecosystems?
Which brings me to what I think we should really be focusing on, and that is larger tracts of in-tact ecosystem restoration. This is something I have another blog post brewing in my head about and will take some time for me to formulate. But the bigger idea is that since there is a rather large interest within the gardening community to restore native plants to the home garden, we should be organizing and working to protect larger tracts of land around us. We should be building corridors of ecosystems around the new highways and big box stores going in as cities ooze out into rural areas. Homes are going to be built no matter how much someone protests, but we should be demanding the natural areas and parks to be buffers around them. I realize this is a larger issue and requires a lot more effort than a pithy social media set of meme posts on how to do something at home, but we really need to be scaling up our activism. All the native plants planted in the gardens of what is in reality a niche gardening community in the grand scheme of things, isn’t going to do the massive changes needed to protect the diversity of flora and fauna we are losing at a rapid rate. Throwing in some muhly grass isn’t going to do much when you just lost some rare native orchids to a highway. We can do both, planting that muhly and protecting the orchids, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that a 0.1 acre of prairie habitat in that sea of lawn is doing anything for the species being wiped away by cement.
This is where I urge people to follow the botanists and ecologists who are showing you what these habitats look like and why I am constantly harping on gardeners to take a walk in a local park or preserve. You have to see what is around you to even understand how your own garden interacts on a larger scale.
I have more to say on this subject but I think it is for a separate post.
Where to Find Native Plants
First off, if you are new to native plant gardening and have relied on your big box stores for plants, please branch out! A lot of plants sold at big box stores, even if some are native, are often times drenched with systemic insecticides. So, even if you bought milkweed for your monarch caterpillars there’s a good chance you are just going to end up killing them because the systemic insecticide is still within the plant’s system. And you can’t always trust the plant tags saying they are pesticide free.
Get on good old Google Maps and type in Native Plant Nurseries and see what is around you. There is likely not going to be a strictly native plant nursery but you will most likely find some native plants for sale tucked in among all of the other plants at the nursery you find. Here in Houston we have a very well-known “native” plant nursery that is really good with marketing but the majority of their plants sold are not native. Do they have a decent section? Yes. But name and marketing has eclipsed the actual product availability. Visit these places and ask for the plants you want to purchase. If they aren’t available at the nursery, often times they can contact the wholesaler they purchase from and order something specific you are looking for.
When you are looking at native plants to purchase, look at the pots for multiple plants within that pot. Sometimes you’ll only get one plant but often there will be many plants in the pot, which means you can easily divide those plants out once you get it home at into the garden. More bang for the $! And if you know what you are doing, certain plants can be divide by the roots anyway, such as grasses. Again, more plants for the cost of the single pot and those prices are rising like everything else these days.
Bring your phone! Look up a plant that is on the shelf purported to be native. I’m familiar with most of the plants that will be sold in my area but sometimes there will be something I’m not familiar with and a quick search online will let me know if it is native or not. Resources like Lady Bird Wildflower Center or the Missouri Botanic Garden Plant Finder will be a valuable asset in ascertaining what you are purchasing is native, hybrid, or cultivar. Tags are often wrong at nurseries and plants get put into the wrong places by workers or customers.
Where do you go when you’ve exhausted the native plant nurseries around you? Next step would be to look up native plant sales at botanic gardens and native plant societies. There are often spring and fall plant sales and if you have the time and inclination you can hit up several over the course of a couple of weekends. Often they put their plant lists online beforehand and you can figure out what you want or need and focus on that when you arrive.
After that, online resources are out there and often this means you have to start plants from seed. There are more options for seed availability for some plants than there is nursery stock for these plants, which is frustrating. And native plant seed can be more difficult to work with if you are unfamiliar with what is required of the seed to germinate. This is a huge barrier to gardeners in my opinion, and one of the steps that needs to be addressed by everyone expressing the need for regional natives to be grown in home gardens. Many native seeds need periods of cold and moist stratification, something we can mimic in our fridges if we are starting them out of season, or we can set them outside in late fall and let nature do the work. Others need to be scarified by burning, something we can sometimes mimic by putting seeds in boiling water for a few minutes to loosen up the outer part of the seed. Do we really expect most home gardeners to be doing this? Only the hardcore plant folks get into this! But truly, growing from seed is where you are going to be finding the diversity to add to the landscape. My favorites for seed are Prairie Moon (MN based) and Native American Seed (Texas based), but if you are careful, you can find quality seeds that aren’t exorbitantly priced on Etsy and eBay. For those two, you should be wary of vendors who sell poached plants or seeds that are protected under state or federal laws.
There are online plant vendors who do ship native plants, too. Mail Order Natives is one I’ve seen mentioned often but they are often out of stock quickly due to demand. And you will absolutely run into great native plant nurseries online who will not ship to Texas and other states due to our ag laws. Either they don’t want to go through the process of getting the certifications to ship to our states or they can’t ship at all. Which is extremely frustrating because often those places will have plants that are native here but you cannot find them for sale anywhere in Texas.
And the final way to get native plants, get to know a native plant gardener who is willing to share plants or seeds with you! Many native plants will seed prolifically and gardeners are always happy to share! I mean, don’t ask someone you just met on Instagram to send you some seeds, but if you get to know someone over a few months and you’ve talked plants, by all means ask if they are willing to trade seeds you have with seeds they have! There are also native plant trading groups on Facebook so check those out. I recently shared frostweed and false nettle plants with folks on a gardening group on NextDoor because I had a ton of seedlings coming up in my pathway. I could have composted them but I knew someone would want them. I potted them up and posted them and a few folks came by to get them. There’s also a good chance many gardeners won’t even know about some of the native plants you are growing so it’s a great way to spread the word. Frostweed is an excellent nectar source for a host of insects in the fall and false nettle is the larval host plant to red admiral butterflies!
The General Public and Native Plant Knowledge
The recent use of the term plant blindness entering into our vernacular within the last decade has shone a floodlight onto just how much people ignore plants within the ecosystem. In reality, I think we have a bigger issue, ecosystem blindness, because if you go a bit deeper you can see the fear that comes from people when talking about insects and snakes. The most gregarious fauna are what we see projected to protect, those that find themselves at zoos or on nature documentaries. And of course we should be protecting and educating folks on polar bears and penguins, but does the general population know about the red-cockaded woodpecker? The Houston toad? A decent amount will have heard about the Texas horned lizard and in central Texas you probably know about the golden-cheeked warbler—but then again, maybe not. Insert any one of the numerous federal and state listed species in everyone’s backyard throughout the US and you’ve got something worth protecting around you.
As for plant blindness, in my own life I run up against folks in my own community who don’t understand the value of native plants or why certain plants are there to provide cover for wildlife. They aren’t alone in their thinking that a nice landscape is a clean appearing landscape, one devoid of a lot of undergrowth or diversity. It’s why there are so many highly maintained lawns!
I know that many of us have done a lot of self educating and a natural byproduct of that is educating our friends and family and converting them to native plant gardening. A lot of folks are reeled in by the desire to attract the more popular pollinators like monarch butterflies and then are hooked into looking more widely from there. But what do we do about every other person who isn’t interested and will never be interested in native plants, or gardening for that matter? What is the percentage of converts we need to make native plant landscaping work at the scale that Doug Tallamy wants it to be? How do we even convert the troops of landscaping crews throughout the country when they can’t even trim crape myrtles correctly?
When you zoom out from the tiny native plant bubble (because, it truly is a tiny bubble!), you realize just how much of an uphill battle we’re facing. People drive by at 65 miles per hour and lament the loss of yet another corner lot going down to build a gas station of which they are generally powerless to do anything about. Do we actually think the acres of habitat lost are going to be made up by the fact a handful of dedicated native plant enthusiasts are planting out their home landscapes with some native plants? I would hope something is better than nothing but what if the something isn’t the same as what was destroyed?
Where to Go From Here
- Growing a garden with any kind of generalist pollinator plant isn’t a bad place to start and we should be acknowledging this step in the right direction. We shouldn’t be shaming people for growing zinnias or for growing what is being provided by the horticulture industry when the horticulture industry refuses to provide anything better. We should realize that most gardeners are not die-hard enthusiasts and aren’t spending the amount of time and energy in their gardens as some of us do and we can’t expect everyone’s circumstances to be the same.
- That said, since garden media has stepped up their use of recommending that gardeners grow native plants, the horticulture industry needs to show up with the product. And not just at a wholesale level. It needs to be available at nurseries open to the public. It needs to be accessible. Enough with the latest Miscanthus or Nandina cultivar. Give us Andropogons and native Ilexes. Give us Vernonias and Liatris. Give us some freaking native milkweeds! Be truthful with labeling and drop common names that mislead gardeners into believing a plant is native (Texas/Argentine senna, I’m looking at you.)
- If we’re going to push the local-ecosystem-habitat-garden ethic, I think the horticulture industry/garden media needs to do better about showcasing and educating folks on the diversity of habitats around them. The wild prairie look is deeply popular for good reason, but we have to realize that sometimes the habitats our homes were built on weren’t prairie habitat. Sometimes those habitats were formerly pine rockland, maritime hammock, wetland, or part of the Big Thicket. Heck, that prairie might actually be a grassland or savanna. Plant your habitat accordingly.
- We have to come to terms with the fact that native plant gardening, especially hard-core native plant gardening, is a minority niche, both within the gardening world and within the general population. The landscape level changes that need to happen aren’t going to happen in home gardens at the scale needed. Overcoming plant and ecosystem blindness is something we should be talking to everyone we know about.
- See beyond your own yard and subdivision. Go to a local natural area and go for a hike. Walk slowly and start noticing the ecosystem as a whole. What is growing there? What is native or non-native? I cannot recommend enough to get some field guides or downloading the iNaturalist and Seek app to start identifying those things that make you go “hmmm?” That’s where the curiosity develops into learning and how you can develop your garden into better habitat.
- Get involved. Whether it is your local native plant society or Audubon chapter, join in and see what is being talked about. The pandemic has really opened up the availability of monthly meetings to folks who cannot attend in person every month which means a lot of valuable talks are accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Many are being archived on YouTube or Facebook by those groups, so check out your chapter for more information.
- And to branch off the getting involved topic, as I mentioned earlier, we need to become more organized as a gardening community. The plights of Bell Bowl Prairie and Split Oak Forest and many others just like it are right in our own backyards. There is valuable habitat being threatened daily by development and some places will disappear without us ever knowing the ecosystem services they provided. A lot of work was done historically in Texas by the likes of Ned Fritz, Geraldine Watson, Lance Rosier and many more to protect the forests of east Texas from logging. It takes a coalition of people to go up against both businesses and government agencies to protect land and species and it takes money. And what is seemingly protected forever, like Split Oak Forest, can be taken away decades later by unscrupulous officials down the line. In Texas we need more conservation easements for private landowners managing their properties for the environment but also we need more protected public lands and to identify environmentally endangered lands, much like Florida does. In Houston, what good is establishing a native garden or two in a subdivision if the subdivision was built on top of the Katy Prairie? This is what I mean when I say we need to protect the lands as they already are instead of trying to hodge-podge something together after the fact.
- Lastly, Vote. Vote at the ballot box and vote with your dollars. Support the people growing the native plants for you to purchase and support the people running for office who will protect the environment.
I know this might not be totally cohesive but I have worked on it for a few months trying to put my thoughts together. As someone who loves to grow native plants, I am consistently disappointed by what I see available. The disconnect between what we are saying to do and what can actually be done with the plant palettes for sale is vast. And that lead me down the rabbit hole of wondering if we’re putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. I have more thoughts about the protection of land outside of gardening that I will elaborate on in the coming months as I get my thoughts together on that. If you’ve made it to the end of this piece and have input, by all means I’d love to hear it. I am sure I left something out or didn’t elaborate enough on a topic, but this beast was already long enough. In the meantime, I’ll be over here with my banana trees, brugmansias, and gingers as well as my frostweed, Cuban germander, sedges, bald cypress, and dwarf palmettos.