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Why Go Native?
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

July 17, 2011

Here's the crux: should we be going native in our gardens and greenswards? Gentle Reader, where you not aware that this is a vital debate amongst those who have put on the green mantle of botanical ethnocentricity? I don’t want to be accused of being salaciously sensational but this is very important to those bowing down under the responsibilities of that mantle.

Simply put, there are those who insist that we must select plants that are native to the area. They can be found in the halls of academia, the government ministries responsible for “dirt and turf”, specialised nursery growers and “concerned” friends of the environment. In other words, a lot of clever people who have some scientific training are proponents of native purity. It’s not so easy defining who is on the other side ‘cause they don’t really care enough to show up to discuss the issue.

The starting point for this debate begins with the definition of what constitutes a native plant. When folks strolled over the land bridge in the Bering Sea awhile back, they brought some seeds with them- not deliberately but perhaps in their clothing and their digestive system ( as indelicate as that might sound). Are the descendants of those plants native? The Gingko biloba tree is said to be one of the oldest trees known to still be around, since the time of Pangea.

Is the ginkgo native? In the United States of America, there is an accepted date of 1492 as the starting point within their country. (I really hope we Canucks maintain our own identity on that one.) They use Chris’ visit as the starting point of an European invasion: perhaps we could look to L’Anse Aux Meadows in 1000 A.D.? But a beginning is needed and 1500 A.D. seems to be as good a date as any.

The next point looks at the native plant itself. Is there such a thing? Can a plant that has been grown in nursery situations for several hundred years be considered a native? Would deliberate selection from cloned stock ( note: not cultivated varieties but straight species) represent a natural process a la Darwin?

Should there be distinctions as to what areas should have only natives planted and what areas are carte blanche? Perhaps one could suggest that an oak savannah should not have magnolias introduced but as a backyard ornamental the magnolia would be welcomed. Once that is agreed upon, do we need to determine which non-natives are considered invasive. For example, is the Norway maple invasive? (All you Gentle Readers with a Crimson King, Emerald Queen or Princeton Sentry in your front yard might want to ponder this one a bit. Whilst you’re doing that, I could introduce you to the Friends of the Don Valley.)

For myself, I prefer to use what is traditionally called a native plant if it makes sense. For example, we recently bade a sad farewell to centuries old sugar maple on one property line and happily shouted good bye to a mulberry on another line. Both have been replaced with hackberries, Celtis occidentalis. If I need a shade tree, then perhaps a native red maple, Acer rubrum or a serviceberry tree, Amelanchier canadensis would suit. Then again, I’ve also planted a peach, apple and cherry tree as well as a smokebush standard. Non-natives but they suited my purposes.

My suggestion is to let common sense prevail. Don’t plant a known invasive species- native, naturalised or exotic, for any reason. In fact, don’t introduce any plant into your landscape that you can’t control- remember that control is an illusion. Other than that, keep our savannahs natural and have fun in your own garden.

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