What Plants Shall Inherit the Backyard?

"We’ve got to stop meeting like this!” I whispered in the perennials aisle between the herbs and the petunias.

Don't be shocked. Last garden season I held secret meetings with my sweethearts in the aisles of garden centers. My beloveds are plants, shrubs, and trees that are actually native to Connecticut. Why meet in garden centers? It’s a lot easier to arrange a meeting with many of these indigenous plants in pots these days than in the woods and fields.

And although native plants should be able to thrive in their native spaces, many today cannot. Indeed, each time I fill my shopping cart I contemplate our disturbed landscape. Forest understories are covered with Japanese barberry and edges are consumed by oriental bittersweet.

"Okay, plants” I whisper, not always escaping the notice of other shoppers, “you need to be in my garden.” There, I surmise, I can defend the plants while they do their work in the local web of life.

But is my backyard a sufficient proxy for nature? Native plants evolve and thrive due to forces of ecology, not an act of horticulture. This distinction first entered my consciousness through Sara Stein’s book, Noah’s Garden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995) and more recently by University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy’s popular Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2009). Tallamy writes that “what is and is not native is best described by nature herself.” He argues that a plant can only function as a native while interacting with its coevolutionary partners— plants and other life forms that have known each other for a very, very long time.

If we accept Tallamy’s observation, native plants personify something that many lament as lost in the modern world—a sense of place.  The native plant is an expression of a very specific collaboration between soil, temperature, light, pollination, seed dispersal, and evolution that came together without assistance—or interference—from humans. And its characteristics came about the old fashioned way—through the passage of time, a great deal of time.

Taken in that context, a native plant growing and blossoming in a native place almost IS the place, quite literally.     

My backyard is not an ecological miracle, but it is a habitat under my control. And that leads to a big question for all of us who wish to be better stewards of nature: How shall we use the space? Which plants will inherit our backyards?

Thanks to members of the nursery trade, some native plants and trees are now widely available for home and commercial landscapes. Many Connecticut growers now invest in native plants. Indeed, some natives— endangered, threatened or of special concern—are so rare in the wild that you might say they’re found only in nurseries and garden centers. Examples of such natives are: balsam fir (Abies balsamea), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), inkberry (Ilex glabra), fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), and the wildflower blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Endangered, Threatened & Special Concern plant inventory.

As nice as this all is, still, nurseries and garden centers are businesses. Market forces push them towards the plants that attract customers not for their ecological credentials but for their colors, ease of growing, or resistance to pests or diseases. Many natives on sale are cultivars bred for longer bloom, better color, or some other charactertistic. Think of Joepyeweed (Eupatorium purpureum) and its showy cultivars or the pastel hues acquired by common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) through breeding. The breeding can leave behind some of the original species’ values, however.

Most native plants are—and always will be—excluded from mainstream commercial trade. The less showy, the outright homely, the hard to cultivate, and the undesirable will lose in the quest for space at the garden center. Therefore, protecting habitat is the only remedy that will assure a place for many, many native plants.

In the meantime, which plants will inherit our yard space? We have choices. What shall we put in the ground?

Originally published in Connecticut Woodlands, Summer 2012.

Black Cohosh

Black cohosh (Actea racemosa) can be difficult to find in the wild. Native Americans relied on it for a variety of medicinal and culinary purposes.

New York ironweed

Though it is called New York Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracencis is considered a Connecticut native. It is usually easier to find in garden centers than in the wild.

Clethra alnifolia growing on rock outcropping

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is one native shrub that volunteers easily in the woods. Here, it has made a home on a rock ledge.

Red Chokeberry

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) has delicate pink flowers in spring, forms beautiful berries in summer, and holds its berries well into fall and early winter. See the picture on the left.