Listen, I’m all for putting your judgy pants on and going to town. We all have opinions and we love letting them fly. Maude knows I do- and I like to think I’m rather good at it. I’ve got really good judgy pants.
However. There is a certain brand of Horticultural Snobbery (TM) that just really rubs me the wrong way. Often, I find it comes from well-meaning, hardcore academics doing amazingly in-depth, important research. These are people who have dedicated their careers and lives to studying specific plants, insects, interactions, etc. Because they care so much and are so driven by the minutia of plants and ecosystems, I think they sometimes loose sight of the bigger picture.
Hard Truth #1: Not everyone is as in love with plants and bugs and ecosystems and gardening as we are.
Hard Truth #2: Most of the non-preserved land in our country is either paved or covered in grass (lawn or corn).
The latest article I read over at In Defense of Plants (which is a fantastic site and also a really great podcast) was about ‘Nativars’– the cultivated new varieties of native plants. The article itself is really great- Matt is (as usual) thoughtful, considerate, and rational in his assessment of both nativars and the work the Mt. Cuba Center is doing to study them and how they interact with pollinators and the surrounding environment. The comments on about this subject though, well, those are another thing all together.
I heard a fair number of opinions over the years positing that these plants are “bad” for simply being cultivated or not true to the native type and sold in nurseries with clever names. (Yes, this is a bit reductive, but it is the general gist). I’ve heard the same arguments elsewhere, over and over again. Natives, Good. Anything else, BAD!
The sad truth we all know from simply driving around our communities is that most yards and ‘green’ spaces don’t pass for gardens, let alone ecosystems. Grass is a MASSIVE monoculture and it is expensive to maintain, brings nothing to the table ecosystem-wise, and is almost always in bed with herbicides and pesticides. And all of these spaces are curated, cultivated, and maintained to look a certain way- and that way is not usually a wild, native prairie (beautiful as they may be). Heck, there are city ordinances and neighborhood covenants disallowing it! If we can get people to plant ANYTHING other than grass- to make their yards a bit smaller and the planting beds a bit bigger, well, that is nothing but good! Whether it is a native plant going in that bed or a David Austin Rose, the result is the same: Net Positive.
Sure, there are caveats. Double and triple petaled varieties carry less pollen so aren’t the ‘best’ option and I personally try to avoid them. Having at least some honest-to-goodness natives in your space is probably ideal (I do have quite a few and got them from a local native plant sale). But unless the plant is invasive, I still believe that any plant is a net positive because its a fat lot better than more grass or pavers or, god-forbid, astroturf. That’s the competition! Inert things!
If Nancy down the street has a strict red and orange color scheme in her garden, are we to tell her that planting a nativar of Echinacea that would match her garden is actually a terrible thing to do? No. That is silly, Echinacea plants are fantastic- native or not. Would you look down your nose at someone who chose a nativar of Monarda that was more powdery mildew resistant? I know I wouldn’t. I’d probably ask them where they got it so I could have non-dusty Monarda of my own! That is the point. These nativars (and even straight up cultivars) get actual plants into actual yards and green spaces. They inherently make the space better because the alternative is tantamount to a good-looking ecological desert.
The beauty of nativars is that they are (generally) close in behavior to the native. It just has something unique or special that makes it more desirable to gardeners. If it is still a good source of pollen, still a source of nectar, or even provides habitat for larvae or larger animals & birds- it is still a net positive!
I do honestly understand and believe in the importance of native plants. The need to support their ecosystems, preserve their genetics. I fully support the goal to make life easier for native pollinators and create better ecosystems (artificial as they may be). But there is more than one way to put these ideas into practice, to make our spaces better. Vilifying the gardeners who want to buy mildew-resistant Monarda isn’t ever going to be the answer.