Top navigation


You Calling Me a Purist?

by Sue Reed

In the world of landscape design, my second-least favorite sentence begins: “Oh, you’re just one of those native plant purists who …” and then goes on to end with: “is trying to recreate some sort of mythical pristine Eden.… believes that anyone who wants some pretty flowers in their yard is evil.… hates/fears all aliens and immigrants…” or some other variation on this theme.

Cedar Waxwings gobble up the June berries of Amelanchier at least a week before we think they are ripe. Yet much of the fruit on cultivars goes un-eaten.

The vast majority of native-plant-enthusiasts, of course, don’t hold such extreme beliefs. But people who oppose native plant advocacy have found a handy label to use when they want to disarm those of us who do believe in the benefits of native plants.

What’s in a Name?

They call us purists: a powerful, pejorative word that neatly implies we’re all a bunch of radical fringe whackos who don’t understand real gardening or the long-term workings of Nature, or perhaps both. We are also called green freaks, shrieking dogmatists, arrogant dreamers, anti-people sentimentalists and self-righteous zealots. (Amazingly, all of these labels were found during a half-hour search of the blogosphere.)

There’s another sentence, though, that ranks as my number one least favorite. This one begins: “I’m no native plant purist, but…” Such words are usually spoken by a native plant supporter who feels a need to establish his or her credibility as a sensible person, someone who would never subscribe to the outrageous beliefs that actually – oddly – exist only in the minds of native plant detractors.

This Streptopus foliage provided some essential nutrient to somebody...and the nibbled outcome is its own kind of beauty.

It’s unclear to me how these detractors have so successfully defined the terms of the conversation, putting native plant advocates on the defensive even before we start to talk. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that lately this expression has been showing up everywhere. Not too long ago, I even said it myself. Somewhere in the middle of a talk I was giving, in a moment of insecurity, I found myself uttering those code words that would reassure my audience I’m not one of those crazy people who believe every plant in the landscape should be a native plant.

I’ve regretted that moment ever since.

Defining the Ideal

Here’s why: I actually do believe that, in an ideal world, every residential and managed landscape would contain some amount of plants for food, vast amounts of native plants thriving in robust ecosystems all around the buildings (or even on them), and no other plants. So. There. I’ve said it. That’s my ideal, and I’m sticking to it.

Have you ever seen this fruit? It’s Sarsaparilla, rarely noticed by humans but highly valued by ground-dwelling residents of healthy oak woodlands.

Are you now asking, “But how could this ever work? What about my daffodils? My lilacs, dahlias, iris and sedum? What about my clients’ need for season-long color and pest-free foliage?” In answer I can only say that, for me, achieving my ideal involves giving highest priority to the fact that plants have a much more important purpose than to entertain and serve humans.

Plants support all life on the planet. They are the foundation of complex food webs everywhere, growing in intricate relationships of support and competition with other organisms. Most of the time we don’t comprehend these interactions, even when they’re right in front of us. Do we know which plants are doing what, for whom, and why, and what will happen if they’re not there? Essentially no, we don’t. Do we know that non-native plants are ecologically equivalent to natives? On the contrary, we know that usually they are not. So if we select plants primarily to satisfy our many human-centered goals, we are ignoring plants’ essential role on Earth.

Planning to Achieve the Ideal

Living a native-plant ideal, in contrast to the standard gardening approach, involves taking myself out of the center of the picture. Not out of the picture entirely, no. Just out of the center. I can still have gardens full of beauty and delight. I can, of course, grow veggies, fruit and herbs (but choose to avoid non-native crops known to have invasive potential). However, in place of an attitude that says, “I might try to use some natives, if I can fit them in,” I always seek to plant a native first and choose a non-native only when there’s no native that could possibly work instead. And whenever possible, I revise my plans so I don’t “need” that non-native plant at all.

We should appreciate this moment for what it is: a vital exchange between Polygonatum and a pollinating partner.

This point of view is, admittedly, not for everyone. But it makes sense to me for four basic reasons (and you might think of others that matter to you):

  • Native plants are more likely than non-natives to fit harmoniously into a regional ecosystem, and to provide usable habitat, especially if we plant them in associations and arrangements modeled on their natural distribution.
  • They are less likely than non-native plants to become overly dominant and throw established systems out of balance.
  • They are less likely than plants from other lands to be the source of disruptive pests and diseases.
  • And – on a more personal note – because native plants are created by the beautiful process of evolution, they feel more “right” to me, more inherently belonging in this world, than hybrids and cultivars created by a horticulture industry geared to satisfy public demand for bigger, brighter and ever more unusual plants (many of which serve no ecological function).

I realize that this native-plant ideal is a dream, a paradigm, a place to begin my negotiation with reality. Of course the ideal must have its exceptions. Of course my actions will take into account cherished traditions, sentimental attachments, customer demands and other practical limitations. And yes, our understanding of the term “native” is continuing to evolve, so gardening in this way can be a challenge. But should my starting point be concession? No, I think not.

So, despite the efforts of some who use this term as an insult and a weapon, I’m proud to say that in my deepest beliefs, in my hopes for a vibrant and richly diverse natural world, I am a native plant purist. No apologies, no shame, and no buts about it.

About the Author

Sue Reed is a registered Landscape Architect who has been designing environmentally sound residential landscapes in western Massachusetts for 25 years. She blogs at NativePlantsWildlifeGardens, and she also wrote the award-winning book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design.