My first remembrance of becoming interested in the plant world takes me back to my mother’s childhood home in the Berkshire foothills of Northwestern Connecticut. We were hiking up the hill across the stream from the house she grew up in, a walk she had made a thousand times before. What once was pasture was quickly becoming woods again, and Mom was trying to show me the vision of what once had been. To a six-year-old mind, the concept of geological change is difficult to grasp, but I began to look around me in a new light; these plants were changing this place…

The next startling insight came as my mother, the paragon of restraint and gentility, suddenly threw herself down in the tall grass and cleared the straw away from a little plant. “Wintergreen,” she said with a smile, “Like the Lifesaver candy.”

She plucked a small berry and handed it to me. “Try it.” I tentatively popped the berry in my mouth and chewed once, then again. The look on my face must have been profound; my mother laughed out loud and told me I couldn’t eat all the berries in the woods, but she could show me the good ones. The rest of the summer was a whirl of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, serviceberries and the occasional wintergreen berry. It was a grand summer.

Somehow as I got older, I lost hold of the thread I had started to pull that day. I still recognized the berries Mom had showed me but the rest was still “woods”. My first indication that all was not well in those woods came before my professional plant career began;  Mother was again the teacher, this time unwittingly.

Invasion of the Garden Snatchers

As a child she had made bittersweet wreaths from vines up on the hill, and wanted some to do the same here in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Unknown to her the reasonably harmless native had been joined by an aggressive Chinese look-a-like, and in a few years the woods behind our house were festooned with the stuff. Mom remains chagrined about this some thirty years later as the problem continues and she laments ever doing it but how was she to know? Nobody told her…

As I began my professional career in plants I started to look for plants that were natives while keeping an eye out for potential invaders, and I found far more of the latter and few of the former. Occasionally someone would point out a crested iris or a pink turtlehead, and tell me it was a native, leaving me scratching my head as to whether or not I could ever remember seeing it in the wild (of course I had not; these are both more southern plants).

As my knowledge of woody ornamentals grew, I began to see more and more recognizable plants out in the woods, but some of these I knew as Japanese barberry and Tartarian honeysuckle; if those southern natives hadn’t made it here, what were these Asian invaders doing here?…

Native Plants are Virtually Maintenance Free

It was my transformation from horticulturist to gardener that began my real education in native plants. Many garden plants I tried were temperamental, needing a surplus of attention, while at the back of the border, those asters were spectacular, more in need of the occasional beating to keep them in check rather than coddling. And I couldn’t help notice that the bees and butterflies preferred those asters to the much “prettier” flowers in front of them. The specific epithet of nova angliae was my eye-opener here. But of course! These plants belonged here!

I tell of my enlightenment to illustrate several key points in the discussion of native plants. Let’s look closer at those New England asters. They are vigorous, maintenance free plants for a reason. If they were in need of care and maintenance the species would have gone the way of the dodo long before. But it is adapted to our weather, to the neighboring plants, prevalent disease and pests, and predation by herbivores. Over the millennia it has developed symbiotic relations with any number of flying insects; it provides nectar and larval food sources and the butterflies and bees provide pollination. A gardener need not enter into this picture for this plant to flourish.

Destructive Effect of Non-Native Plants

In fact, when humans do enter into the plant picture, things often begin to go astray. We move an azalea from Japan, and it brings the seed for mile-a-minute, a voracious eater of woodland. We select cultivars of a fine native, winterberry, only to create berries too big for many of our native birds to use (we accomplished this by crossing with a Japanese native).

We collect plants for garden use to the point of extinction; witness Franklinia alatamaha, named for that founding father upon discovery and no longer found in the forest only decades later (if not for continued propagation by the horticultural industry it would have disappeared over two hundred years ago. The latest horror to visit itself on the plant world, Phytophtera ramorum, or sudden oak death came to California with nursery stock and then was shipped country wide by two of the largest nursery companies on the planet (all this happened in the span of two years). While nature finds her own ways to move species around the planet, no other vector in the history of the natural world has moved as quickly, or done so much damage as did the hand of modern gardening.

Why  Nurseries Sell Non-Native Plants

For someone who joined this industry with hopes of “greening” the world, the fact that I was part of the problem was an abhorrent thought. Native plants began to make more and more and more sense to me. Everything I heard about invasive species had remediation as the final step to cleaning up the problem, and every source listed native species as the best bet for remediation.

I started to talk to the industry about natives and was surprised to have my words fall on deaf ears. I heard “They don’t sell.” or “Why would someone spend money on something they can dig out of the woods?” , but the killer was “They’re just not as sexy as the garden plants people are used to.” I had no come back for that one; they weren’t. Not a lot of double flowers, many of the wildflowers are ephemerals, and shade plants (a huge category for the Northeast natives) aren’t very floriferous to begin with. Just wasn’t fitting the garden that most people wanted…

Word of Benefits of Native Plants Began to Spread

But as I began to dig deeper, I found allies along the way. Designers like Oehme and Von Sweden and Piet Oudolf were slowly dismantling that English cottage border look. In the trade I began to meet people like Dale Hendricks at North Creek Nurseries and Neil Diboll of Prairie Nurseries, guys who had been singing my tune since the Seventies and building businesses around the concept. As friends in the trade became aware of my interest, I got introductions to folks like Colston Burrell and Bill Cullina, both extraordinary native plant specialists. As I met these folks I began to realize I was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The word was spreading…

But the word was spreading inside the trade; there were more and more committed professionals, but the word was not getting out to the backyard gardener. The more I saw and read, the more convinced I became that that was the target audience we needed to reach to have any impact on our biosphere. All well and good that the ASLA and state and federal agencies were going native, but home gardens were where most of the bio-invasives for our area were growing and where the majority of landscaped property lay. Simply crowing about native plants was not the answer; without the retail ready look of the majority of garden plants, natives were not going to get a day in court, let alone a fair trial.

The Native Garden Paradigm

Then a friend put me onto a great book called “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards” by Sara Stein. Sara told the story of becoming first a suburban gardener, and then, noting the disappearance of the wildlife from her increasingly manicured property, becoming interested in why that was. The answers led her to investigate natives as an alternative gardening form, but here was the big surprise for me; she was willing to give up that manicured look for the wildlife.

This was the paradigm I had been looking for; not gardening for the sake of aesthetics alone, but finding that purpose that transcends human need for the sake of the entire biosphere. And Sara preaches with the fervor of the converted. Mowing became a method of preserving paths, not lawns. Plantings became more about wildlife use than color scheme, more about seeds and berries than flowers. Yet Sara is still a gardener, and this is no pasture or swamp, it is a garden, loved and tended the same way you might look after a wild cat; it will survive without the care but it will flourish with it.

Native Plant Gardening is Mainstream

Another friend put me in touch with the Missouri DEP, who in concert with their Department of Agriculture, had started a program called “Grow Native”. They had come to much the same conclusion I had; invasive issues were a matter of education and the natives were as positive way to address a negative issue. They provide signage, posters and sales sheets touting natives to local garden centers at cost, and put garden centers in touch with local growers of native plants. They have increased awareness of both invasive and native issues, and strengthened local businesses, both retail and wholesale. The program now goes into schools and other public forums to educate; in a recent impromptu poll I took on a Native Plant Forum, two of the three Missourians I asked had come to native plants through this program. Wish those were my tax dollars at work…

We are in transition, we gardeners today. Many are upset that state and federal mandates on invasives will take away old favorites (in some cases they are right). But I ask you all to look at this in a different light. We all came to our love of the garden through different channels, but the root remains the same. It is Nature herself that shows the best combos, the finest designs, the ultimate plants (What breeding program could offer a showy ladyslipper?) Give Mother Nature a chance in your back yard. She will reward you in ways we can only guess at. I am blessed with a new (blank) yard. Some will be border, some will be my Japanese garden. But the greatest portion I will give back to the birds and butterflies that were here before me and my yard will be better for it.