Image of skipper butterfly on sunflower

Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden

I welcome human immigrants to my community, but my botanical preferences are for natives. Some people think the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Here’s where they’re wrong.

Image of pokeweed and goldenrod
All the gardening guides advised me to rip out pokeweed and goldenrod (above) when I first began landscaping my yard. Eventually I rejected that advice – not because of some arbitrary adherence to “nativism” but because wild animals need them. Perching on a sunflower leaf, the silver-spotted skipper (featured image, top) represents just one of millions of other species who share the planet with us. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Two years ago while attending an entomology lecture, I was surprised to hear the professor describe native plant advocates as “borderline xenophobic.” The comment seemed to appear out of nowhere, a defensive-sounding remark delivered amid a heated discussion about pesticides.

Since then I’ve learned that this type of characterization is nothing new. In a 1994 New York Times essay titled “Against Nativism,” Michael Pollan called for a kind of “multihorticulturalism,” portraying native plant advocates as goofy and misguided at best and racist at worst. Sociologists, ecologists, and historians have since written extensively about the politicization of native species, echoing Pollan’s reflections on what he described as a dangerous cultural obsession with European plants in Nazi Germany.

Whether or not Hitler really had an opinion on the provenance of plants is subject to debate; at least one researcher offers compelling evidence that cynical landscape professionals jumped on a political opportunity, attempting to garner attention by cloaking their agendas in the sentiments of German superiority. Nazi authorities, he writes, appeared somewhat indifferent to the whole matter.

Image of monarch caterpillar by Nancy Lawson
Perhaps the most famous example of a specialist is the monarch butterfly, who eats only milkweed species at the larval stage. Unlike humans, many other animals have highly specialized needs that can be met only by certain plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Whatever the case, a fear of repeating history (or even interpretations of that history) is often invoked as a way to discredit the ecological case for native plants. Especially in this age of sweeping anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the new U.S. administration, some wildlife-friendly gardeners and horticulturists are struggling to find new ways to describe native plants in an attempt to distance themselves from the semantics of hateful ideologies.

Image of squash bees by Megan Leach
Squash bees are also well-known specialists, relying on the pollen of squash flowers to feed their young. But many other bee species have similarly refined tastes, collecting pollen only from the plants they evolved with. (Photo by Megan E. Leach)

Aside from the obvious point that our country’s agricultural and horticultural history has brutal roots in the colonization and extirpation of indigenous people, plants, and animals, there’s a more fundamental flaw at the core of all these discussions: By projecting our own politics onto the millions of other creatures with whom we share the planet, we are comparing not just apples to oranges but one apple to all the other fruits across the globe.

Here’s what I mean: We humans are all of the same species. We are all mobile, and we can all technically survive in a variety of habitats around the planet. We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters. These animals and countless other organisms (up to an estimated 1 trillion when accounting for microbial life) often need certain plants that in turn have evolved to grow on certain topographies, in certain climates, with certain rainfalls or dry spells or soil profiles. From bees to butterflies to birds, many creatures can live only in regions or even narrow niches in which they evolved.

We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving only on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters.

That’s why I plant Maryland species in Maryland for the animals who depend on them, and it’s why I hope gardeners in Oregon will plant species that have coevolved with animals in the Pacific Northwest, and those in Japan will plant species native to their regions, and so on. Conversely, it’s also why I can and do welcome all humans to my community: My habitat is their habitat, my home their home. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we all need the same things to survive. And we can’t meet those needs without protecting and restoring the healthy ecosystems we, too, depend on for clean air, water, and soil.

Image of English yew (Taxus baccata) by Mark Robinson/Creative Commons
In its native lands, English yew (Taxus baccata) nourishes blackbirds, song thrushes, and other birds; squirrels and dormice also eat the fruit, while satin beauty moth caterpillars nibble on the leaves. But animals who don’t share their evolutionary history with the plant don’t always know to avoid it; in December, a bear family in Pennsylvania died after eating yew fruit. (Photo by Mark Robinson/Flickr.com, Creative Commons license)

When Pollan wrote his article, we didn’t have as much data on the value of native plants to wildlife and the harm caused by some nonnatives, which can displace habitat and even poison animals unfamiliar with vegetation from outside their historic ranges. But now an ever-increasing body of research supports the case for planting as many natives as we can, not for selfish human reasons but on behalf of all the other life forms now dependent on us to nurture their last remaining habitats.

Image of Nandina domestica by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is native to Japan and other parts of Asia but has few natural controls here. In the U.S., it has displaced native plants in natural areas, and cedar waxwings have also died from eating its berries. Most of the invasive species displacing wildlife habitat were introduced by the horticultural trade, and many are still being sold. Why not plant native hollies, junipers, spicebush, elderberries, viburnums and other species that provide needed nutrition without harming animals and their habitat? (Photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

Does that mean those advocating for wildlife-friendly landscaping want a return to the exact plantings that grew in some nebulous, pre-human era, as detractors so often claim? No. Such claims feel like cheap shots from tired playbooks that attempt to discredit compassionate, progressive, science-based causes by portraying them as extreme. Even if such a state were desirable, we all know it’s outlandishly unrealistic. You don’t have to be a gardener for long to understand that. My yard still has turf grass that was here when my husband and I bought the house 16 years ago, and it still has plants that threaten wildlife habitat. But it also has hundreds more native species than it did back then. I look at it as a lifetime project—and a lifeline project for the many more creatures who have now made a home here, simply because they can find what they need.

Far from being mutually exclusive, environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the new administration appears to care little about either, implementing policies detrimental to both humans and animals. Wildlife don’t recognize geopolitical borders, let alone those demarcated by impenetrable barriers that restrict their movement and may destroy their last remaining habitats. They’re already deeply affected by climate change, the science behind which our president chooses to ignore. Some of their last refuges, our public lands, are under siege by silencing orders, corporate pressure for oil and gas drilling, and threats to further defund their operations.

It’s more important than ever that we do what we can in our own communities for both animals and people—and that we ourselves pay attention to the science, not political rhetoric, behind native plants and other critical habitat needs. We can’t take care of the planet in the long term unless we take care of each other now. And we can’t take care of each other in the long term unless we take care of the planet now. I believe in human rights, and I welcome the other citizens of this earth with open arms. I believe in the rights of our fellow species to make a home here, too, and I welcome them with the plants they need to survive. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

For Further Pondering …

Many journal articles, essays, books, interviews, and discussions with friends and colleagues have informed my thoughts on these issues over the years. Countless words have been written and spoken on the subject. Here are just a few of those writings that may be of interest to you.

Journal Articles: The Native Plant Debate

Those who conflate native plant advocacy with xenophobia often cite articles by Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, including The Ideology of the Nature Garden and The Native Plant Enthusiasm: Ecological Panacea or Xenophobia? These and similar essays contain virtually no discussion of the ecological role of native plants, as ecologist Daniel Simberloff points out in Confronting introduced species: a form of xenophobia? Researcher and author Frank Uekötter also challenges contextual references to Nazi policy, arguing in  Native Plants: A Nazi Obsession? that many attempts to discredit the native plant movement ignore evidence that Nazi policy was far from settled on the matter—and that a continued focus on human political history “threatens to poison an important cross-disciplinary debate” about the ecological value to other species and the planet.

In Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants, published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, three social scientists explore the history of displacement of indigenous people and plants following European settlement. Communicating Invasion: Understanding Social Anxieties around Mobile Species is a fascinating look at public reaction to scientific and media-generated communications about negative impacts of  invasive plant species in Switzerland. And when a group of scientists called for evaluating plants based on their function in a Nature essay, Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins, a counter-group issued a helpful rebuttal, Non-natives: 141 scientists object, that concisely lays out the arguments for continuing to protect native species and monitor nonnatives for potential harm to local ecologies.

Books: Understanding the Science Behind Native Plantings

Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Doug Tallamy provides well-researched proof of the value of native landscaping to wildlife, particularly birds who rely primarily on insect specialists to feed their young. His second book, The Living Landscape, written with Rick Darke, adds helpful ideas for applying this knowledge. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Claudia West and Thomas Rainier explain why ecological plantings have long been unfairly cast as difficult to establish and maintain, outlining a roadmap for more successful cultivation through greater understanding of plants’ natural growth habits. Carefully explaining their view that natives are an important but not exclusive part of sustainable landscaping, they attempt to defuse what they view as loaded terminology by emphasizing the need to evaluate a plant’s ecological function just as much as its origins.

 

23 thoughts on “Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden”

  1. This piece is very welcome. I get the same excoriation from native plant folks when they find out I keep Apis mellifera survivor stock (taken from the wild, not purchased) the Honey bee. I live in California where Arundo donax and Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) both exotics, have taken over much of the wild lands of the state, especially along the rocky coastlines. Your point about planting natives is simply a reflection of biological reality, not a choice any animal or organism makes in the species it is dependent on. Invasives from other lands are here to STAY—they are too resilient and widespread. The honey bee is one, also. However, there is much we can do, as you are doing in your garden, to make things better and lessen the impact. I fault the gardening industry for not being better stewards regarding the continued sale over decades of plants they KNOW are highly invasive and very difficult to eradicate—the leaves of Pampas grass are as sharp as knives on the edges. Arundo has very thick, heavy root systems and takes over riparian habitats.

    1. Thank you, Susan – yes, I like your term for it: biological reality. Honeybees are definitely here to stay as well, and I don’t fault any of these living creatures, animals or plants, for the lot they’ve been handed (literally, the lots of our homes that are often thousands of miles from their original homes!). I sort of cringe when I hear people describe plants as evil, and I’m especially averse to hearing it about animals. We made this mess, and the least we can do is try to make reparations in whatever ways we can. And yes, while it’s understandable that horticultural importers of the past didn’t realize the impacts they were going to have, they certainly have enough information to recognize it now, yet they still sell this stuff at nurseries. Pampas grass is still being sold here, too, despite its invasiveness. I don’t think the problem has reached the degree you describe in California, but with these things it often seems only a matter of time, right? Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad you found this useful!

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful article! I am really exhausted from defending the reasons native plants are so important, now I can just refer them here. Thank you so much.

      1. I posted your article to my Facebook page and I hope it brings people to your blog, because what we need in this country is about 48 million acres of humane gardens! Thank you, Nancy!

  3. I very much enjoyed reading your essay this AM. FYI that I copied the URL and tweeted it. I only have a handful of ‘followers’ so it may not get the coverage that it should. I hope Thomas Rainer retweets it…he has about about 5k followers. Alex

    1. Thank you so much, Alex! I am glad you liked it and really appreciate your sharing it. I’ve been putting together a followup interview with Claudia — some of which didn’t make it into the book but that I found fascinating.

  4. Congratulations on an excellent article, Nancy. If there are prizes/awards for this type of writing, I think yours would receive a very high rating. In 1867, Mark Twain said, “Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.” I presume that by “deadly” he meant “effective”. I also presume that he’d be amazed, but not completely surprised, by the state of human affairs today. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks so much, Debbie! I really appreciate that. And this is a great quote from Mark Twain. His wise words have certainly been invoked a lot lately. Sometimes it feels like there is nothing left to say or no good way to say it anymore, but then it always turns out somehow he figured out a way 150 years ago!

  5. Nancy, what a wonderful and insightful article. I had no idea there was debate about this. It makes sense to plant natives and for all the right reasons.
    I, like you have been returning my yard and gardens to native plantings, and whenever possible I try to focus on those that are threatened or endangered in my area. I do keep a few non-natives, mostly because I love them them, but also because I live in an agricultural community and so much of our food crop is pollinated by honey bees.
    Thank you for the great article.

    1. Hi Amy, thank you! Yes, it surprised me too when I first learned about it, and now I find I run into that sort of resistance frequently. It sounds like you have a great space for wildlife with a mix of something good for everyone! This fall I noticed the last plant to bloom here – a frost aster (a native that most people think is a “weed” and pull out) – was covered not just in mining bees but also honeybees! It was a volunteer in my yard. So maybe those can help the honies, too. 🙂

  6. Interesting article,. Just a comment on German National Socialism and in defense of my friend Joachim Wolschke-Bulhlman: he did his Ph.D. dissertation on this topic in the early 80s and brought many things to light that had been hidden until then, regarding the German “of the blood, of the soil” doctrine of that time. Jewish horticultural schools were closed down all over Germany, with some students making it to America to establish nurseries and landscape companies, and others becoming established in Israel and elsewhere. Joachim has recreated these destroyed lists of students, interviewed, and documented them to the extent possible. I have accompanied him on such interviews here in the states. The Jewish heritage in our industry is deep, and was in Germany at that time. German landscape architects and horticulturalists were forbidden to practice under National Socialism. This should not be forgotten. Joachim’s work was never about the ecological side of this equation, so to criticize it on that basis is missing the mark on what his particular contribution has been. That is for others like you and this group to hash out. We know, for example, that the National Socialists did not outlaw cultivation of non-German food crops, so clearly their doctrine had limits. As an American Jewish landscape architect, I appreciate knowing more about my German ancestors and what they accomplished and what they were prevented from doing due to racism. That there are untapped positive relationships between all members of the plant world is a given. Framing the debate in nationalistic terms only obscures issues we need to further understand.

    1. Thanks so much, Cheryl. I really appreciate your additional insight about Joachim’s important work to document the persecution of Jewish horticulturists and landscape architects. My goal was to question not that history but rather the way it’s been used to equate current native plant advocacy with nationalist doctrines. I agree that framing the debate in nationalistic terms misses the point—and, in some discussions I’ve been involved in over the years, that framework is employed as a way to shut down the conversation about the value of native plants to wildlife. As you say, Joachim’s work wasn’t about these ecological connections, even though others have tried to pair the two. So decoupling unrelated lines of inquiry, while not negating either, seems important to changing the conversation when it heads in that direction. I would never want to imply that we should forget such devastating history. Thanks again for commenting and helping to expand the conversation!

  7. This is a great discussion with such useful links. I continue giving a lot of thought to issues around planting indigenous and exotic plants and the unfortunate polarisation that can make discussion difficult between camps where feelings run high. Obviously, and as you make clear, indigenous plants (the word ‘native’ has all sorts of apartheid-era connotations here in South Africa) fulfill a critical role, but specific (including local) contexts bring nuances that make any single response overly simplistic. There is so much ongoing learning that needs to be shared and valued and thank you for promoting such a thoughtful approach.

    1. Hi Carol, thank you so much for reading it, and I’m really happy you find it useful. It’s fascinating that we face similar struggles in communicating about this issue no matter where we are across the globe. I’d been trying to figure out how to explain it for so long, and then one day in January someone who moved here from another country asked me what I do. This person doesn’t have a gardening background or wildlife knowledge as far as I know, and our new president had just been sworn into office. Trying to explain my advocacy work in just a few seconds — in the context of a casual conversation — made me very uncomfortable because I didn’t want my dislike of plants being shifted far outside of their home ranges to be perceived as in any way related to humans crossing arbitrary international borders. That’s when I knew I had to try to figure out how to put this in writing … so I could more easily also explain it in person. I am excited to connect with you and am enjoying looking at your website!

      1. Thanks Nancy. It is great to connect. It is true that needing to communicate with others is an effective driver to honing one’s own views and learning more. I am new to blogging and find it is making me examine my views more closely and it is also heartening when one can connect with and learn from those travelling a similar path. Even though from different parts of the world many issues are shared. I am hoping to make time this week to read more of your posts, which are so encouraging and informative.

  8. Hi Nancy and other readers: A couple of weeks ago I was reading the book “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy, after reading a positive review of it in a quarterly journal from the Florida Native Plant Society (from 2009). That book is one that Nancy mentions in this post. I HIGHLY recommend that book to anyone who wants to gain a clear understanding of the issues related to native plants v. exotic plants. The information that Mr. Tallamy presents essentially makes any debate or controversy pointless. By reading and understanding the facts, well-informed consumers, gardeners, and landscapers can take actions to create healthy eco-systems and support the life-forms that contribute to those systems, can avoid adding to the numbers of invasive exotics that have destroyed balance within eco-systems, and can avoid adding additional devastating diseases and pests to the lists of those that historically have accompanied the introduction of many exotics. Thankfully, writers of scientific data are helping us make better informed decisions going forward re: the short-term, long-term, near-and-far-reaching environmental consequences of our actions. Please do our planet a favor: read Tallamy’s book. I think you’ll be glad you did. Thank you.

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