Thursday, March 10, 2005

Native Plants in Landscaping -- Philosophy of Use

What is the key to the appeal of indigenous plants?

"Notes on Development of a Philosophy For Use of Native Plants in the Landscape (An uncompleted paper evolving in development)" is an obscure article written by the great plantsman J. C. Raulston. It appeared in Newsletter #5 (May 1982) of the then North Carolina State University Arboretum, now known as the JC Raulston Arboretum. I'm not sure he ever developed it any further.

For openers he asserts:

"Native plant as a concept for use in landscaping is normally important more as a philosophical statement of the user than as a biological reality." Native is an indefinite concept: "Geographic and political boundaries have no relation to native ranges or adaptability. Palmettos and Carolina hemlock are both N.C. natives and neither is suitable for Raleigh."

Raulston refutes the often cited justification: "natives are better adapted to an area and are insect and disease free". He notes: "Many of our most aggressive weed plants are exotics that vastly outperform (in growth) native materials - can these be considered less adapted?" Exotic diseases and pests sometimes ravage native plants! Most areas where "landscaping" is carried out are grossly disturbed: "many problems are "site" problems that affect exotics and natives equally - poor drainage, heat loads, air pollution, etc."

Native plant ranges are not a guide to potential adaptability. Some with very restricted "natural" ranges are widely adaptable, such as the Monterey cypress and Torrey pine "grown as superb ornamentals and forest lumber trees in many areas of the world." Propagation constraints restrict many species. Some with tiny seeds, such as willows, must germinate in nature in wet areas, but if artificially propagated can perform well when planted out in dryer places than where they "naturally" grow. The Florida torreya is native only along two miles of a river in Florida yet is hardy to at least minus 5 degrees F. as grown in New York.

People erroneously think of wildflower plantings as "a simple, easy way to landscape or plant low-maintenance areas. In reality most attempts [based on this naive philosophy!] are total failures. Research by [Nancy] Doubrava at NCSU showed that site preparation and care is as essential for natives as exotics" -- which accords with my experience. Along California freeways we commonly see signs that say "Wildflowers by ..." with nothing but weeds in evidence!

Then Raulston comes up with his theory for the REAL reason for choosing natives ... the subconscious motivation. The real, unrealized motivation:

"apparently, most often is a practical way to handle the problems of dealing with the sheer bewildering volume and variety of information existing on all plants that could be potentially used. The world of plants is indeed terrifying and intimidating to a beginner. If one can arbitrarily decide that 95% of the available material is totally unacceptable, the mastering of information becomes much more approachable and one does not need to take the time, effort and energy to evaluate plant individuals - much the same way that we all often deal with life and society by making blanket decisions that 'all (name your pet category) businessmen, students, women, Italians, government officials, gays, lawyers, blacks, landscape architects, etc. are ____ (fill in your own value judgment)' - in reality sometimes true, sometimes not - and normally not even used by the user in a malicious manner but just as a coping device of simplifying the staggering array of value judgments that must continually be made by everyone - plants simply have become one more. Ideally one would look at the potentials and adaptability of each plant available - but this is difficult and the information often is simply not available anywhere.

"None of the above is to imply native plants should not be used for I strongly promote the use of many superb native plants ...


Reasons to use native plants

1. To maintain the "character" of a "natural" site (often a decision on what time period of that site is necessary; but "character" can also be handled by exotics of similar appearance that are indistinguishable to any but extreme specialists).
2. To fit the psychological needs of the client who has a strong value judgment on the subject.
3. Because of the highly desirable plant characteristics and adaptations of the individual plants - foliage, flowers, bark, fruit, shape, season, tolerances, etc. (Half the plants on my "plants needed in the N.C. nursery industry" reference sheets are native and dozens more should be produced and used)."

Among desirable native plant characteristics Raulston doesn't mention, their generally much greater value to native animals is foremost in my mind. Non-native plant species also have value for native animals, but typically for a much narrower spectrum of animal species.
Note: words in brackets in the quotes were added by me. Nancy Doubrava is now Interpretive Specialist at JC Raulston Arboretum.


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At 7:57 AM, Blogger Cecile said...

Well, let's face it, we live in a world where we want our cultural heritages to be preserved at all times, in all aspect. Even if it means we also bring it in our home. People would like to have their identity known to others and that choosing native plants in landscaping also helps them achieve their goals.

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