Whose Got the Blues? Native or Non-Native


If you go on color, they come up pretty even.

Unfortunately, it just might be the dedicated native enthusiasts. They have been getting vocal opposition from those that feel not all non-native plants are bad for habitats and native wildlife.

Some non-natives even prove beneficial when observed. Granted, a gardener’s visual evidence is the bottom of the barrel in scientific terms, but it should not be so readily dismissed.


Well behaving non-native plants can benefit some wildlife, but many native enthusiasts (zealots) would have one believe otherwise. Of course invasive plants are not being suggested… but see next post that is not always the case.

Executive Order 13112 defines invasive to mean “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Most non-native plants are naturalized and not invasive. Few as such displace with abandon. (The Federal Noxious Weeds List for reference)


A respected group of bloggers, Death of a Million Trees looks at the native/non-native debate, but as it revolves around their concerns. The link is to an interesting post a few years ago, but their mission remains consistent to today. They are specific to the San Francisco Bay area, but do cite research from other areas as well.

Native plants can coexist with non-natives, it just takes knowing which ones do without detriment and additionally, provide benefit. Like myself, they favor native plants, but do not see the clear benefit to certain non-native removal projects.

They do not endorse planting non-natives, just not removing those helping the environment. You would need to read their posts to know more about their mission.


You rarely find non-native zealots. They seem to be a more forgiving group. Gardens today are filled with non-native plants and species cultivars, but not the species itself often.


The link to Death of a Million Trees cites an important example,

“The most conspicuous example of a butterfly making use of an introduced plant is the migrating Monarch which overwinters in eucalypts in several locations on the coast of California.”


Their article got criticized by an entomologist which got a reply post from Death of a Million Trees here. Comments from a researcher countered the argument and it took a swing in another direction.

Actually this eucalyptus is very unique, being the location where it is found. Nature is complex as so many factors play a part on what is beneficial to any one species or habitat. I read a lot of information on this plant and have to say, they had great arguments for keeping the eucalyptus, debunking arguments to remove it.

Discussions on native plants get some very lively discussion. On their site, the discourse is civil, well researched and most commenting are knowledgeable.


The problem on many sites is both sides of the native/non-native issue are right in many respects, yet speak too generalized, cite no credible evidence and often are too narrowly focused. Some may not consider that there is any negative ramification to their action or choice other than removal.

This issue raises many unanswerable questions that we look at next post.

How does one come to a consensus? By listening to the opposing side. And more importantly, gathering empirical data to form indisputable common ground. Not all non-natives are worth culling, burning or eradicating by pesticide as is often used. Not all non-natives should be planted either.


The way the discussion generally goes is that both sides stake out a position and then proceed to cherry-pick evidence to support their thesis, ignoring or worse, dismissing evidence that does not support the direction of their position. This seems to be why the topic gets so politicized.


If we look closely at remediation efforts, they can come to a standstill because a plant set for removal might be beneficial to one creature we all need and want, the honeybee or Monarch.  The same plant might be destroying wetlands and displacing native creatures. So that presents a dilemma on what one saves at the expense of another?

We can look at where it might just be better to let nature sort it all out, rather than meddle and make things worse.

The crux of the issue is that it is all very complicated and not everyone is a winner just based on native habitat restoration. Losers abound… and sometimes those that lose, make us the loser too.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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53 Responses to Whose Got the Blues? Native or Non-Native

  1. Really enjoyed the photos, especially the first one!

      • Melissa says:

        Hi, I am having a hard time figuring out how to comment here for some reason. Sorry to do it in this comment thread. Gah! Been following you for a short while now and love your blog. I have a question regarding the birch bark deer head from a while ago. Would you be willing to answer a few questions about it? Its very important to me. Let me know if so and how you would like to chat. Thank you so much in advance!

  2. While we say that everything is connected, that phrase doesn’t really convey how tangled and messy all these relationships are. Wonderful photos, too!

    • What many do not accept is that through time, gardens have connected people. Trade routes brought plants that would have never been seen in their new locations, some plants people would not do without, like many herbs and food crops. Then you have the ornamental plants like bulbs… was there not a tulip mania? It just seems strange to talk about introduced plants when only talking plants we don’t want in light of those we do. You are right, a tangled mess.

  3. alesiablogs says:

    The photos are so soft I feel like I can touch them!

  4. Bom says:

    My first plants were mostly non-native. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve just started collecting orchids but have decided to limit myself to native species for now. My plants are purchased more as collectibles than for, shall we say traditional gardening purposes. Also, they are hanging or potted and therefore unlikely to overwhelm any other plants. I can see though how this could be worrisome for others especially in terms of being invasive.

    • I too pot up plants that might escape. I did that with daisies, then thought really it is senseless in a way in our climate. What is invasive other places, is not here due to the weather. Plant seeds may not survive. Buddleia is an example. I never had mine make one new sprout. Keeping the mother plant alive in our climate is hard enough.

  5. I love your purple blues, Donna! Excellent shots and post! 🙂 Trying to keep the balance is a very delicate issue, especially when we have been interfering with nature for so many years in a rather negative way…

    • I agree, it is a problem with almost no solution no matter how hard some may try. As a designer, I try to be thoughtful in my selections, but it is always the client that has the final say. They want rose, they get roses.

  6. Roger Brook says:

    As usual a very thought provoking post Donna. I am in the camp of permitting none natives- obviously I make the usual caveats. I am actually preparing a post for a couple of weeks time on our UK problem of invasive Rhododendron ponticum.
    In the UK many folk don’t really know what is native and regard many plants as native when in fact they are not.
    If a plant in the wild came in with the Romans is it native? Well no but…

    • I believe one can not make blanket determination of what can be planted or culled. Each area must be looked at for how a plant will perform. You have an invasive Rhododendron, yet when I checked the NYS list, I did not see that one. It all depends where one lives.

  7. lemanshots says:

    Gefällt mir ganz besonders! 🙂

  8. As to each side acknowledging only the arguments in their favor and ignoring inconvenient facts – I think that describes the debate on almost every controversial issue (maybe climate change is an exception, where the denial is really concentrated on one side). I am not a natives purist – I grow and love many non-native plants – but I do think some of the anti-natives people also can go over the top. Michael Pollan comes to mind, he compared native plant advocates to Nazis who wanted a racially pure society. I don’t know if you saw the interview I did some time back with Neil Diboll, who owns Prairie Nursery, a native plant nursery in Wisconsin. He was not a purist either, noting that he grew non-natives ranging from daffodils to apple trees.

    • I did see your interview post. Pretty sure I commented too. You and I have many plants the same in our gardens. I grow for wildlife and that includes the shrubs I have for shelter. When most talk about native plants, they look at the perennials for food, but the trees and shrubs play an important part too. Michael Pollan said a lot more in his article than for the one thing he got criticized. To be fair, here is the link to the NY Times article. http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/against-nativism/ and here is an article on the Pollan piece from a blogger out in San Francisco that I started following. http://sutroforest.com/2009/08/27/michael-pollan-nativism/ Like I said above, it matters where one gardens. I am finding too many making a moral issue out of what people plant. That makes it too cut and dry, a choice of right and wrong. With that always seems to come those in the “right” telling everyone else what is wrong. The problems are much, much bigger (like what I wrote in other posts) than home gardens, but home gardens can help by planting for wildlife. And wildlife gardens can be pretty too.

      • Audubon and other bird conservationists do stress that shelter is as essential as food, and this is a reason I keep some of my non-native shrubs, including Lilac and Japanese Yew. (Of course I also love the flowers and fragrance of Lilac.) My personal view is that it is unreasonably limiting to try to have a “pure” garden consisting exclusively of natives. On the other hand, as you know there are some exotics that really are pernicious in some areas – and I believe that they should not be sold or planted in those environments.

  9. A delicate topic indeed. I look at both sides to see where the research is and also where the most harm may be happening. I do believe that there are a few very detrimental non-natives that should not be planted and should be looked at as far as getting rid of them. Easier said than done as you have said. I am not a purest but a lover of natives. I find they do the best by far in my climate and I like to keep them going for the wildlife. In reality it is hard to plant species natives and we end up with many cultivars. And I plant bulbs, herbs and other non-natives that are not aggressive. Given the choice I would plant many more species natives if I could find them.

    • Not me on planting the species generally. We have cultivars because they may have better traits than the species. I have written on Monarda for instance. The cultivars are better garden neighbors to other plants. They attract just as many insects too. I can walk to the Falls meadows and see the wild Monarda. I never saw a hummingbird there like I do in my garden. We don’t have to be purists. But my reasoning has more to do with having a tiny city lot. If I lived in the country, I would have an area I just let nature have her way. It would be interesting to compare the insect and bird activity between the natural and the designed.

  10. milliontrees says:

    WOW!! I am so impressed that you have not only read the Million Trees blog, but that you also understand what we are trying to accomplish. In so doing, you have clearly claimed the proverbial middle ground. That’s sacred territory that Million Trees hopes we can all find eventually. When we sound a bit shrill, we are trying to drag the debate toward that common ground.

    Thank you so much for your even-handed treatment of this controversial topic. We are deeply grateful.

    • I subscribed too. I am guilty of having the middle ground. As a designer, I have to maintain a neutral position. But I do it more for the reason that either extreme does not seem reasonable to me. It certainly is not the plants that are the problem, but how people perceive and use them. If a plant is not studied from every angle (more than just what it does for wildlife, like erosion control, wind abatement, even the science of the soil), how can it be deemed detrimental? Your eucalyptus proves this. I read so many of the interesting posts you have, even the guest post (one of my favorites). I found your position very reasonable. I thought my readers should hop over and see what you have posted. There are too many bloggers like I mentioned that go the sensationalism route, some with no practical experience in the field (like environmental work for instance). Sure it is good reading and gets ones attention when bloggers “talk tough”, but may not be based in fact or practical experience. Everyone is entitled to opinion, but informed opinion is always a better choice. Your posts had a lot of fact and studied research. Blanket statements don’t work the world over. Heck, they don’t even work from state to state. Thanks for coming here. I am pleasantly surprised.

  11. Hi! This was a fascinating read. All the photos are good and the top one is stunning. Blessings, Natalie

  12. This is truly a complex subject and one I find very polarizing. In the Southeast for example the butterfly bush is listed as invasive in several states and several counties in Georgia. People love this shrub but aren’t convinced to remove it because it attracts so many butterflies and they don’t see it spreading in their garden. Hence, they don’t understand the concept of it being invasive. It makes it difficult to convince people to remove it from their garden. A nearby nature center spent thousands of dollars removing this shrub where it had spread from peoples gardens. It really takes an educated gardener to know which plants to choose that will be beneficial to the environment as well as plants that won’t harm the ecosystem. There are too many nurseries and stores that will sell invasive plants because people want to buy them. I plant mostly for wildlife so I incorporate many native plants but I also have some non-natives just because we like them and they make us happy.

    • I guess using my butterfly bush is a bad example because it is a sterile plant. It also is so short birds would not visit it anyway. It is frost tolerant and dies back in winter so it is slow to come back. I do have a question on bird dispersal though. Bird metabolism is so fast that I wonder if any studies prove that birds disperse invasive plants all over the country. I find when feeding, the birds feed and drop where they feed generally and if they take flight, they drop again in a very short time. I can see then how your neighborhood nature center did get the Buddleia volunteers being near to where the home gardener’s plants are grown. We have that problem up here with buckthorn, but I really don’t see it outside of the parks area in neighborhoods. I would be interested in studies showing how far the birds disperse seed. It would be good to find this info.

      I would bet some of the plants you like are also some in the same with insects. I agree most people are unaware in how invasive is defined. If, “cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” is the definition, that really tightens what is invasive. Just because a plant spreads does not make it invasive.

      The reason this subject interests me is I see so much contridiction and uncertainty. Too many factors play in and some are too difficult to gauge. That is why I am wary. The weather is one big variable and people are the other. Both are unpredictible and both are playing a huge part in plant and animal nativeness.

      • You are right in saying that just because a plant spreads widely doesn’t mean it is invasive. And there are lots of non-native plants that are invasive in one region of the country and not the other which makes it even more complex for some. I think your idea of seed dispersal is a very valid point. Privet is a great example. In my part of the country, where it is dispersed by birds and is very fast growing in sun and shady areas, it is a real problem. And I know in the New York area it is prized as a hedge shrub and people take great care in pruning it. Yet, I have spent more time than I like to think trying to get rid of it just in my 4 acres. I don’t know if a migrating bird would carry it that far but over time it may creep further and further into various regions and become problematic where ideal growing conditions are found. An interesting note on the sterile butterfly bush, I have read reports that often over time sterile plants will revert back to being fertile. This hasn’t happened yet with the butterfly bush but I think the sterile version is fairly new to the marketplace. Only time will tell. Also, I wonder if sterile plants are less inviting to pollinators. I haven’t read any studies on that; have you?

        • I do not endorse sterile plants, but do trial them before specing them to clients or recommending the tree and shrub nursery orders them to grow for commercial sale. I believe many are not attractive to pollinators, but not all. My Redspire Pear gets loads of activity in Spring and Winter for nectar and fruit. As for reverting, I don’t know the answer to that specifically, but some sterile plants do put out seed that will produce, albeit they produce very few viable seeds or fruit. Pears are an example. I was thinking on the bird dispersal issue and like you, figured in time birds might move plants in this way, but it would seem to be a very long time as they hopscotch (each drop) along their way. That is why I would love to see a study on it. Plus, where a bird travels has to be places a plant would find suitable. How many plants are truly generalists and live in varied soils and weather conditions. I know some invasives can by how wide they spread, but again it would be an interesting study.

  13. debsgarden says:

    Your photos are beautiful, as always. I have a real love for blue flowers, as well as blue/blue-green foliage. I plant a lot of natives, but I also plant non-native ornamentals. I think there is a balance. The wildlife is abundant in my garden, and that makes me happy.

    • I have quite a few non-natives too in my small garden, but most were chosen for what they provide to wildlife. Some perennials were just because I like them, but I still see bees visit. Plant choice is something often personal to the homeowner. I had one client that actually despised hydrangea and another who wanted no native plants. They did not want bees! Not because they were allergic, they just did not want bees. Even boxwood gets bees very early in Spring.

  14. A.M.B. says:

    How interesting! It’s clearly a very complicated issue. I have plans to improve my garden (hopefully soon), and hope to plant mostly native species, but we have some non-native plants that I intend to keep. I tend to avoid zealotry in all forms. 😉

  15. catmint says:

    wonderful photos, Donna, and complex and important topic. I’ve just written about this too. Indigenous plants seem more relevant than native, but if it becomes like a cult or religion, then it’s no longer helpful. I am influenced by the ideas in Rambunctious Garden, that seems to me to be about accepting change and our role in it.

    • I too believe much of what Emma Marris says in her book and shows through her work. I am surprised people commented that she dismisses the negative things humans do to this Earth, where I think she is just pointing out that some things only happen with human intervention. They are confusing the issue in this manner. Then there was one noting she had to fly between locations. Of course she did. She was doing scientific research and study. People will always find fault. Here is the link to the You Tube video with her speaking on her work

  16. Patty says:

    Hi Donna, I have to disagree with your choice of choosing cultivars over the species of natives. The majority of cultivars are actually sterile and of little use to the insect population. In order to create plants with all the desirable qualities the consumer wants breeders end up losing scent and seeds that are food. When we play around with genetics we end up altering the size and shape of blooms (bees may not recognize that landing pad ), loss of scent (no longer attractive to insects driven by scent), and sterility in seeds ( goldfinches find their food source no longer provides enough nutrition). It is a huge conversation. Many natives are actually bred with their equivalent from overseas raising the question are the cultivars still considered native. It is difficult conversation for many (like me) but I look forward to the next post.

    • Thank you, but I never said in the post I would always choose cultivars. What you say has much truth and I have posted myself on my distrust of genetic modification of plants and animals. It does not seem our “right” to do it, even though most is done to help feed a growing world. I understand the other side of this issue as well. I will say what I always say. There is too many people in this world and we have lost sustainability as a result. We exceed carrying capacity unless we do all the science to accommodate – which is being done to many people’s dismay. You are very right, this becomes a huge discussion. An unanswerable one, EVER.

      I choose what works for the garden like plants that work hard for getting wildlife here. If I had a large property like many of my clients, I would have a portion devoted to a natural area. I have created meadows on some properties and woodland walks on others. My garden is so small, yet I have Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly Weed, Asters, Goldenrod, Penstemon, meadow sage, and the list goes on. I just don’t have the “weed” versions of each. All have a cultivar name and each mentioned gets hoards of pollinators. Some cultivars are closer to the species than others, like my Penstemon. It seeds itself everywhere. So does the Goldenrod. Joe Pye weed is new, but I am betting that will require pulling all the volunteers too. One of my Monarda runs like crazy to. The other two cultivars don’t. I have read on the goldfinches too. I have not made my mind up on that one. Both side have presented good argument.

      If we did not have cultivars, a big business would disappear. If I was a landscape architect rather than one for building, I would lose my livelihood too.

      Thank you Patty for adding to the discussion. Always great to have passionate people give their views.

  17. Pat says:

    Beautiful photos.

  18. Jennifer says:

    Interesting to read your post Donna and some of the comments. I think that some people expect nature to be fixed and unchanging. In reality, natural environments are always changing. What always worries me is man’s undue influence on these changes.

    • My next post is all about change. I agree, many that want to take landscapes back to some arbitrary time do not take into account that much has changed and plants may no longer be as adapted. And it is far more than just a location, it is the air quality, wildlife available, topography, the climate with moisture and temperatures, and the one thing least considered but very important, the soil and soil structure changes over time. In our climate, freeze/thaw sees that it changes yearly. Even nutrients and pH change as more limestone gets incorporated. Always adding compost is only temporary here as the clay is relentless. Some would say this is the precise case for natives, but the ones hundreds of years ago? It seems to me to look forward and just make good choices for the future.

  19. nutsfortreasure says:

    I have been hurting to bad to sit and focus on all the blogs I follow tonight with Lava Lamp lit I have begun to catch up and after seeing your beautiful post I am so happy I did gorgeous shots I must search ebay for used MACRO lens 🙂

  20. Hi Donna: Sorry I’ve been out of the loop for a few days. Work and personal reasons. This is an incredibly thought-provoking post. I think I probably have similar opinions to yours. I have a lot of non-natives in my garden–some were here when I moved here, and others I planted myself. One of the first posts I did was about deciding on a vision as a gardener–deciding about zones and native/non-native plants, and on placement of said plants. My garden has three distinct “zones.” The area near the house is cultivated with natives and non-natives, and as you move further from the house, it becomes more “wild,” with about 90% natives in the forest. I have a very difficult time pulling out a plant that seems happy and isn’t a bully. So, I only replace them with natives when the non-natives pass on. Very good post!

    • I think most have the same opinion but not always admit it. For the same reasons as we do, they have a garden that includes non-natives. They also have all the listed natives I have in my garden or yours as well. It is a diverse world and there is not a thing wrong with diversity. I think like you also that if the plant is happy, well behaved and servicing wildlife it gets a place in the garden. If it is marginal yet well behaved, eventually it will be replaced with something better. I don’t cull plants because someone puts a label on it. My garden has zones and micro-climates too. A plant will grow differently depending where in the garden it is placed. Some is for exposure reasons, but others soil conditions. Seems reasonable to me, but there are some that disagree.

  21. Margie says:

    Playing catch up Donna! Your photos are continuously drop dead gorgeous. Super duper blog missy!

  22. bittster says:

    You’re a brave one to open up the native-exotic Pandora’s box, it seems like passions always get fired up on both sides when this topic gets revisited.
    My only thought is I like to think natives should be given half a chance to hold on. Sure it’s sometimes overwhelming and almost hopeless, but given the current rate of extinctions, I’d like to try and hold on to a few of the little things that make each part of this little green world unique. It would be like planting a pear, stella d’oro, rudbeckia and hosta in every front yard across America and saying that’s good enough.

    • Good point and many do just that. I was called into a gated neighborhood that had a homeowner’s association. Every front yard was planted exactly with the same homogenous plants. No flowers were even allowed in the front yards, even potted ones on porches. These homes were expensive and seeing the barberry and yews across each foundation planting was quite a shock for me. One flowering cherry tree was in each front yard too. When one pays as much as these custom homes cost to be instructed what can be planted seemed ludicrous to me. Why I was called in by one homeowner, was they were allowed to do anything in the rear of the home they wanted. I put up arbors, natural stone paths and walls and added flowers out the wazoo. The owners wanted an English type garden. We put in a small pond and ordered bat houses, bird baths, bird houses, and a whole host of wildlife enticing things for this garden. It backed a woods and woodland plants went there. Needless to say, I immediately got six other homeowners asking for me to do their design. Would have had more, but it was more work than I could handle at the time with all my other jobs.

      Have you seen the list of plants in my garden? They are mostly native plants (cultivars) interspersed with hedges and non-natives. I too believe natives should be given preference, but one has to understand, homeowners get the final say on what they prefer in most cases. No amount of native badgering gets them to convert. I show them photos of natives to get them to swing in that direction, but many end up still planting the Stellas because they like them. It is much different working with many gardens (and their owners) than just the one we have at our homes – where we have the last say.

      • bittster says:

        Native badgering never works, in fact I think it builds resentment.
        An all native planting is an unrealistic ideal anyway, unless you want to poison out all the non-native earthworms which have and continue to change the entire structure and nutrient load of most NA soils. Pure natives may no longer be best adapted to these altered soils.
        But I still try to opt towards natives in my choices…. even if planting non-local provenance plants and unusual genetic selections might actually degrade the genetics of local populations. But like you say, it’s my garden and I will try to be the best steward I can be.

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