The Dark Side of Native Plant Enthusiasm

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(source)

Over the last few decades I have met a lot of very lovely people that are freaky enthusiastic about native plants. And as much as they seem to powerfully advocate a positive thing, I must confess that I have now been down this road so many times that when I encounter somebody advocating native plants, my stomach twists into a knot. I will often choose to change the subject in an effort to keep the conversation friendly.

When I first heard of arguments about native plants, I could not comprehend how there could possibly be anything to argue over. What’s wrong with native plants? It turns out that the problem has nothing to do with advocating for native plants, but in advocating against all other plants – not just for oneself, but for all people.

I think that the argument for native plants (or, more accurately, against non-native plants) is that there used to be all these different spots with interesting stuff growing. And with international travel and trade, seeds have been introduced from all over the world such that all places everywhere are losing their botanic distinctiveness. All places everywhere(*) are becoming more homogeneous: the same things are growing everywhere(*). The corollary to that is that a lot of species that used to do well here are being crowded out by species that do even better here. (* = when I say “everywhere” I mean to say all of the similar spots are ending up with all the same things globally. And I could expand for a few dozen pages on improving the accuracy of this statement, but I’m going to leave that for some other day.)

Native to When?

It is my impression that here in Montana, a plant is considered “native” if it was growing here before white people showed up. Although there were some white people popping in around 1743, it seems that we draw the line at 1805, when Lewis and Clark came through.  So, the plants that were here in 1804 are “native,” and the plants that were here in 1806 but not in 1804 are “non-native.”  Crisp and clear.

Native Americans moved a lot of seeds around before white folks got here with their seeds. But I guess the native plant folks are focused on the impact of the Europeans.

I suppose the passion for native plants could be a sort of guilt thing: white people brought a bunch of seed here, and those plants are overwhelming the plants that were already here such that the cool plants that were here before could go extinct without a bit of intervention. So a lot of folks want to repair the problems caused by their ancestors.

Of course, there were plants that showed up before 1743 that were invasive and a nuisance. A great example is the douglas fir tree. White people looooove the douglas fir tree. It’s great for building stuff we like to build. The folks that were living here before 1743 didn’t care for it. They would burn it out. It kept trying to take over land that was currently growing food. Oh, sure, they found uses for it. But they also worked to get rid of it in spaces where it was a bother.

Douglas fir 172 years old
(source)

So maybe there have been some people that think that the date for “native” should have been before the douglas fir tree showed up.

Here is one of my all time least popular videos which happens to be about the problems with native conifers:

Natural Succession

At one point in time there were no douglas fir trees. And then they showed up and sorta wiped out lots of other species of cool stuff. And now they are labeled “native”. No white people involved.

There are similar stories for nearly all plants. Species come and species go. Survival of the fittest. Granted, when human beings with their fancy boats and explorer boots came along, this whole process was dramatically accelerated. But for the moment I want to do a bit of a mental exercise: I want to embrace the spirit of the native plants movement and look at what plants are here in 2014 that would have made it here even if the whole white-people-acceleration thing didn’t happen. After all, this whole succession thing is happening all the time. Birds and other critters help a lot. And it would seem that native american people do some too. And wind?

While we are putting a lot of effort in hating and killing plants just because they were not here by the 1804 deadline, it seems like the decent thing to do is to add plants to that list that would have made it here by now without all this white people influence.

Maybe half the plants that are currently being sprayed because they are non-native would get a note from Science saying “Please don’t kill dandelion anymore, we decided that they would have made it here by now due to wind and birds. So we added it to the “native” list. Thanks!”

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A Diet of Native plants

I’ve met some people that are so passionate about native plants that they insist that anything that is non-native should be removed. When I try to ask what percentage of their diet is from native plants …. well, it takes a while to get a clear answer, but so far the answer appears to be, nearly universally, less than 1%.

I would like to suggest that people living in town with a quarter of an acre, plant a permaculture food system. Native plant people tend to take that same piece of land and plant 100% native species. Which is fine. The problem I have is when they get angry at other folks for not doing the same.

I like to think that if people nurture a permaculture food system on their quarter of an acre, they might, some day, be able to grow half of the food they eat. I think that this might save two acres of farm land that would otherwise need to grow stuff to feed them. That two acres could be left as wild land which, hopefully, will include a lot of native plants.

Here is a video I made of Toby Hemenway talking about native plants – and my favorite part is when he makes this point:

The Pow Wow Grounds in Elmo, Montana

I was invited to the Pow Wow Grounds in Elmo, Montana to give permaculture advice. While giving my advice they told me that they had received advice from a native plants person – the suggestion was, of course, all native plants. I told them that that would certainly be interesting. I told them that the cost for all native plants would be about 1.1 million dollars to set up and $200,000 per year to maintain.

I then proposed that they do permaculture on most of the property and have a small area that would be established and maintained as “common plants growing in this area in 1804.”

I went on to point out that when mullein came to the area, the native americans found 17 different uses for this plant. I would think that for all the plants that arrive through the centuries, native americans found uses and found a way to live with the changes. It would seem that native americans embrace all of nature and do not exercise a bigotry based on some arbitrary date.

My philosophy appeared to be well embraced.

Here is my rather popular video about mullein:

Noxious Weeds

The concept of the “noxious weed” started with the idea of plants that could be toxic to farm animals. Animals know to avoid these plants, but if you fence an animal in and they run out of good food, they will experiment with whatever plants are left. So as long as your animals have plenty of food, there is little value in removing “noxious weeds”.

The term “noxious weeds” was adopted by the government and expanded to include any plant that somebody found annoying. Even native plants. Usually it is plants that do better than the planted monocrop. The theory is that if you claim that plant is threatening your crops, you can make the plant illegal. Then you obliterate it, and force your neighbors to obliterate it and then it won’t be a problem anymore. In theory. Some seeds will wait in the soil for a hundred years before germinating.

Lots and lots of people have added their favorite pet peeve plants to the list.

I once read a list of plants that were a mix of “noxious weeds” and other plants that are legally required to be eliminated. As I read the list I recognized nearly half of the plants as extremely beneficial permaculture plants.

The Herbicide Tie-in

Herbicides are generally recognized as the best way to get rid of unwanted plants. So a lot of native plant organizations receive a lot of love (in the form of actual dollars) from herbicide companies.

Weed boards also get a lot of support from herbicide companies.

The laws against weeds are often lobbied for by herbicide companies.

Granted there are exceptions – but as a general rule of thumb, this is the case. Google it.

I know that whenever I hear of a native plant organization, my first thought is “funded by herbicide companies” or “lipstick on an herbicide company”. Same for weed boards – just looking for an excuse to spray some product. The weird thing is that a lot of these organizations are non profit organizations.

Love the earth by poisoning it.   There is a bit of comedy when non-native people advocate killing the non-natives.

The Never Ending Battle

Getting rid of the non-native plants is a huge task. Billions of dollars? Trillions? And it isn’t something that you would just do one time. It would be something where it would be a massive task and then it would take that much again every ten years to maintain it. It will never end. But as long as the war wages on, herbicide companies will keep making money.

One Person Managing 20,000 Acres vs. 2000 People Managing Ten Acres

I’ve heard that the majestic russian olive tree is no longer allowed to be sold in montana. There is concern that it is displacing native plants. My impression is that it is growing in places that are nearly devoid of any plant life and it basically creates an oasis so other plants (including natives) can get started.

I have talked to three plant experts who are certain that it is good to put russian olive on the noxious list, but I never did understand what they said was the downside – other than “it is not a native plant.” I talked to six other plant experts and they seemed to also be confused.

But my thinking goes like this: It is a tree. If you don’t like it, a chainsaw will fix your problem.

This makes me think that there are some people that are powerful advocates of native plants *AND* they own 20,000 acres *AND* they have paid some enormous amount of money to cut down the russian olives (because they are not native) and the russian olive trees come back. So, naturally, they want to make sure there are no russian olive trees growing within a hundred miles so that they might possibly be able to reduce their non-native-tree-cutting-budget.

After all, if you are one person with ten acres and you don’t like russian olive trees, you can cut them down pretty quickly. You can use the wood for firewood, or to make a hugelkultur for other plants.

So if a person has ten acres, and they like russian olive trees, why is it that they are not allowed to buy a russian olive tree? It is an excellent permaculture tree. The only thing I can think of is this whole thing about owning 20,000 acres and advocating native plants only.

Plant Bigotry

With all due respect to Godwin’s Law: I read something suggesting that the native vs. non-native distinction is a type of bigotry, complete with links to Nazi and aryan stuff. Or racism in general. “Natives only” sounds a bit like “whites only”.

I think folks should have the right to be as bigoted as they like. The thing that gets weird for me is when the government requires bigotry.

Myth: Native plants are better suited to your area

If this were true, why do we have any concern over non-native plants threatening native plants?

Summary

Most native plants are awesome!

Most non-native plants are awesome!

Some native plants are icky.

Some non-native plants are icky.

When I hear people advocating native plants because they are native, I wonder if they are employed by herbicide companies, or if they have bought in to the spin generated by herbicide companies. Either way, it is a bit of a bummer.

I hope that all gardeners and farmers everywhere grow lots of stuff they think is cool. And I hope that one group of farmers/gardeners does not try to impede the joy of other farmers/gardeners.

Discuss this more in a thread dedicated to this blog
at permies.com:

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About ephemeralcas

I am a Freelance Writer who grew up under the big blue skies of Montana. I recently received my B.A. in English from The University of Montana and have headed out west to try out California life. I am a very passionate person and I have a fire in soul for all things regarding gardening, literature, permaculture, and feminism. In my spare time I enjoys reading heady philosophical novels, and going fishing in the dark.
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