It’s a collection, damnit!

So I have this native plant collection.

Seriously. I did a count t’other day, and there’s over a hundred different natives that I put in the ground, and that’s different species and doesn’t even include all the different variations (I hit a big plant sale late last autumn when they had a LOT of asters half-price, and now there’s a large section that’s solid aster cultivars. Haven’t a clue what it’ll look like next fall, but here’s hoping…)

And those were just the ones that are still alive.

From this you can assume that I’ve got A) a large yard and B) sufficient disposable income to satisfy a rather obscure hobby. It’s actually not that spendy, particularly when nice people at the arboretum learn of your passion and are happy to dump random plants on you, or if you haunt a lot of end-of-season sales, but yes, this is indeed my primary hobby. Not that you could have guessed or anything…

As a result, my garden is exactly the sort of garden we are told by designers absolutely not to have—the plant “collection” where there’s one of everything and nothing is related. If I am feeling self-justification-y, I will plead that this is in the spirit of research as I am still new to gardening in the Southeast and if something does very well, I go out and buy five more, as in my mountain mint planting or all that Husker Red penstemon and swamp-milkweed, and two black-eyed-susans going full-throttle are definitely not a “specimen planting,” and anyway, one bee-balm turns into EIGHTY FREAKIN’ MILLION given thirty seconds and a little rain, so it’s a mass planting NOW and…um…what was I talking about?

Right. Garden design, don’t have a plant collection, whatever. Those people can bite me. The chief function of the garden, as Henry Mitchell once wrote, is to bring delight to the gardener. My collection brings me incessant delight. I can kill an hour in early spring just wandering around checking on plants. If you want to show up and complain that it looks like a patchwork quilt designed by a blind man on LSD, that’s your prerogative, but I will have words, probably starting with “No, really, do I know you and how did you find out where I live, anyway?”

Anyway. Right. Native plants. I collect them. Some people do commemorative spoons or Star Trek plates, I do native plants. They don’t have to be pretty. They honestly don’t even have to be useful–closed bottle gentian’s an awesomely weird little plant, and as far as I know, hosts no specific bug, has no useful properties, and the poor thing’s endangered and threatened in a lot of places to boot, so obviously I HAD to grow it.*

However,  I read yet another garden blog today that reported “push-back against native-plant purists,” and wondered yet again who the heck these purist people are. I have had readers tell me they exist, that they occasionally button-hole nursery owners and lecture them, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt these reports, so clearly there are some weird native-plant trolls out there.

So let me just state the following, for the record, lest anyone assume that I am among their number—and honestly, given the number of times I talk and rhapsodize about native plants, I can sorta see how you got there, and anybody who plants a hundred of ANYTHING is probably suspect.


I have no problem with most non-native plants. I am all for them. What Sara Stein called “well-behaved immigrants” are welcome in my garden any day of the week. I have a fair number of non-natives, including Walker’s Low Catmint, Jerusalem Sage, Autumn Fire Sedum, calamint, pineapple sage, all those wonderful Agastaches and pretty much my entire vegetable garden, and we’ve already talked about my little Salvia problem.  The aforementioned catalog of my garden turned up thirty-odd non-natives I’ve planted, and I’ve got at least that many that are only what I call native-ish—i.e. they’re from somewhere within driving distance. Texas and Florida has some awfully neat stuff in it, and if it’ll grow here, fantastic.

I do not expect everyone to share my deranged passion for natives. As far as I’m concerned most plants are better than no plants whatsoever. If you want to grow nothing but azaleas and boxwood, it is no skin off my teeth. No, I don’t think it’s very exciting, no, it doesn’t do a lot of ecological heavy lifting, but it’s also not hurting anything, and some generalist bugs are still going to benefit, so that’s a net win, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, it would be nice if we had more native plant options. Some native plants really do a lot more ecological heavy lifting on the bug front than any non-native ever could. And even a couple of native plants in a garden is better than none, and I think if every gardener put in just one or two native plants, it would be awesome, and it might make some bugs very happy. That’s really all I ask there. I don’t expect everybody to take up a plant collection like mine, I don’t expect people to get terribly excited by little plastic pots of American Mandrake or Mountain Dog-hobble or Rattlesnake-Master (although hey, are those great names or what?)  And almost any plant is better than no plant at all, as far as bugs are concerned.

Even azaleas and boxwoods beat the hell out of concrete.

Where I draw the line is when people plant thugs. If I have to spend hours of my gardening time wrenching out the spawn of something you planted, this makes me a trifle grumpy. I would much rather be sipping a mint julep and reading inspirational literature to my closed bottle gentian than spending the day yanking Himalayan blackberry runners and swearing every time a thorn goes through my goat-hide gloves.**

And let’s not even talk about the Screaming Buttweed (aka Japanese honeysuckle.) We hates it, Baggins, we hates it forever.

I do not feel this is an unreasonable point of view. Don’t plant things that make life harder for other people. (Bamboo, I am looking in your direction!) And I realize that people get very upset when they find out that a plant they really like is a thug, and frequently they get defensive about it, because there’s often a very sentimental component to gardening, and thus there is a tendency to start arguing that people are just purists who don’t want ANYBODY to have nice plants. Hey, my Grandma planted Japanese honeysuckle, I know how it goes! But my emotional response doesn’t give me the right to make life harder for all the neighbors around me, or for the poor Forest Service, who is already spending a truly obscene portion of their budget trying to get rid of some of this stuff.

I have heard from readers who would like to garden, but are in a sea of goutweed or ivy or bamboo coming in from the other yards and have thrown up their hands in despair. I think this is very sad. I don’t think it’s kind to do this to your neighbors, but I understand that some people don’t realize that they are being horticulturally unkind by doing so, which is why you have read this same speech from me, in variation, about fifty times now, and will probably continue to do so every time I have to spend a week tearing out buttweed.***

So. To sum up, because as usual that got way long:

Native plants good!

Well-behaved non-native plants also pretty good!

Thugs bad!

Really, that’s all.



*If you understood this justification, you are either a gardener or a collector of something.

**Whenever I read somebody dismissing invasive plants as no big deal or overblown or whatever, I just want to invite them to my garden in early spring, when the Himalayan blackberry and the honeysuckle are both going at once. I can only assume that they do not garden in the sub-tropical Southeast and thus have not actually encountered invasive plants on the scale that some of us live with. Presumably a good multiflora rose thicket would have a similar educational effect.

***Honestly, if I had goutweed, I might just napalm the whole place down to bedrock. It’s the only way to be sure.


  • kat says:

    I think it says something about my family that when I mention I’m thinking about planting bamboo, I get such an earful of It Is Devilspawn No Really that it takes a while to get it in that I’m thinking of planting it in planters, on my back porch, safely away from any actual dirt, where its primary purpose will be for a small and destructive bird to clamber around in being destructive. It’s the only thing I figure could survive him.

    As far as I know even bamboo runners can’t eat through a planter and porch deck to spread, but the rest of the family is still dubious. But it’s better than bittersweet — if I suggested I was thinking of planting bittersweet anywhere, in any form, disowning would be the least of my worries….

  • ursulav says:

    There’s a native American bittersweet! It’s harder to find, but you can plant it without guilt!

  • trn says:

    *DROOL* I spent most of my life in the Mid Atlantic and reading this post just made my heart flutter and I literally found myself smiling as I read through your species list.

    I myself, when living in a place with any discernable amount of dirt, love to collect native plants as well. There’s some deep beauty in species that are naturally delicate (Columbines, which have been bred into big beefy blooms), gorgeous but poison (Lupine), or that develops big fat fruit for you to eat as though it were a family member trying to provide for you (Paw Paw). Also a deep beauty in seeing them in their native habitat and knowing that they’ve evolved especially for where you have them.

    I now live in the Great Basin, in an area with less than 14 inches of precipitation every year. It was a huge shock the first year or two, but I finally put my foot down and took a wildflower class and also happen to organize a native wildflower show where I work, and that was all it took. Prickly Pears that bloom like roses, Scarlet Gilia whose delicate blossoms float as hummingbirds drink, Fireweed explodes pink like fireworks, and best of all, Bitterroot, a white bloom with fat, succulent leaves that you’ll miss entirely in the gravel if you’re not listening for it.

    (sigh) Thanks for this post. It’s snowing here today and all I can think about are plants. It warmed my sun-staved heart!

  • Rhianimator says:

    Here in northern California, it’s mostly a matter of getting your plants to survive the hot, dry summers. Natives are a blessing there. Still, there are invasive minions of evil all around, and if I caught someone actually *planting*blackberries, I might have to throw them into some huge man-eating patch that’s choked off a seasonal stream; confident that they’d never be seen or heard from again.

    The usual remedy for people clearing streams of blackberries around here is a flamethrower applied on a clear day during the rainy winter, so the fire won’t go anywhere you don’t want it to.

    as it is, I’m happily anticipating the arboretum’s annual plant sale as they’ll have more natives than I’ll know what to do with.

  • Wow, over one hundred natives! I really need to make a list of what I’ve planted and where. The other day I was out in my 2010 rain garden and I found lots of seedlings. The trouble is, I don’t know if they are natives that seeded from something I planted last year, or native “weeds”, or non-native weeds. For now I’m leaving them be until I figure it out.

    My daughter quite wisely suggested that I need a list so I can check the vegetation against what should be there. Ah, the wisdom of teens. Where did she get it from? I’m not that good on lists, but I suspect I’ll have to get busy soon. After all I want to know when I get to 100!

    Native plant lover here, but I’m not a collector as such. Neither do I hate people who plant non-natives. However, I would like to convert every gardener to having at least some natives. They are so rewarding and appropriate.