We enthusiasts have a shorthand way of speaking. We say, “I use native plants”, and then sit back and smirk at our superior understanding of ecology and the good we’re doing the planet. But really? There are as many definitions of ‘native’ as there are gardeners, I’m afraid.
Native to where? Are you talking about an ecoregion, an entire state, the county or town covered by some set of restoration regulations? The site you’re working on? The specific spot where you plan on putting that …. Native. Plant.? Because just throwing a straight species Lobelia cardinalis, say, in that planting hole is not going to cut it. You may be in for some big-time ribbing, or even worse, you may lose the trust of those you are gardening for — and that includes clients, passersby, and the animals you were trying to help. Your plant will not necessarily thrive just because it is on that list of native plants you were using.
Native? When? Before the parcel was developed and the top soil scraped? Before the city was enlarged, the suburb was created, the construction trucks arrived? Before Europeans settled here and brought plants from the homeland? Before Native Americans moved from this ground to that as they hunted or foraged, carrying the seeds they’d saved with them? Before the glaciers wiped out many of the evolving flora? At which point do you want to stop time and announce that THIS is what we are trying to restore?
And once you found a place, and a time: can you restore those soil conditions? The type of rainfall and runoff that once existed there? The larger ecological community that used your piece as just one part of a continuous corridor? Can you stop tomorrow’s delivery truck from depositing faraway soils and seeds from its tire treads? Can you stop the earthworms and groundhogs and deer that have exploded in population all around you?
Maybe the more honest questions should be: what small ecosystem service can I provide with this plant? Will it be recognized as useful by pollinators? Will it capture storm water, take up contaminants, stop soil erosion? Is it the right plant for this place, in this current time and these current conditions? Will it thrive here with a minimum of inputs?
Can you consider all of this, and do your best with what you know about this site, these needs, that benefit?
OK, now you can go pick out some plants.