Peony Shaming: Native vs. Non-Native Plants

February 26, 2018 0 Comments

Peony Shaming: Native vs. Non-Native Plants

Most of us strive to be more eco-everything: an eco-consumer, an eco-homeowner, an eco-gardener, too. But for a lot of us, the act of reducing one's environmental footprint isn't an overnight transition. It takes education, some sacrifice and a change of habits. However, "experts" abound, ready to tell us when we've strayed off the eco-conscious path. If we do, we're labeled scofflaws and summarily shamed.

But here's the rub. Not all experts agree with each other.

Recently, as part of a discussion on an unnamed Facebook group, I was scolded by the administrator for suggesting the use of non-native plants in a garden. I had questioned her comment, "Always plant natives. Always."

Welcome to the world of the native plant purist. Clearly, I hadn't read their mission statement thoroughly and joined the wrong group. My bad. So I quietly left. No need to start a controversy. We can choose to disagree in a respectful way.

But, I wondered, is it really accurate to say, Always plant natives?

Curious about the topic, I did some exploration and discovered a few things, such as new research out of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) that shows the issue is not so cut-and-dried as the FB group administrator implied. 

George Weigel, in his article, Save the pollinators? It's not as simple as "plant native plants" coined the phrase peony guilt. As in, "How dare you plant a non-native peony in your high country desert garden!" Do pollinators, such as bees, care what flower they drink from?

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and author of "Bringing Nature Home" states, "If their mouthparts work, they don't care if it's native or non-native."

Scott Stuart, Director of the Lurie Garden, says,

...field studies in public and private gardens have shown no consequential evidence that the introduction of some non-native plants have any significant negative impact on resources available for local pollinators. In fact, creating near-native designed landscapes may have a mutualistic benefit in the maintenance of pollinator populations.

And even if you decided to plant all natives, there's this interesting comment from Phil Nauta of the Smiling Gardener:

The reason non-native plants often do better in our organic gardens is because native plants actually grew in very different conditions than are present in and around our cities and towns, and anywhere that humans have spent much time, which is pretty much everywhere we have gardens.

My garden in Boise, Idaho is definitely not all native. I'll continue to look for the most drought-tolerant natives that I can find from my local nurseries, but, I won't shun pollinator-loving plants that suit the landscape and climate even if they're non-natives. I love the Veronica and Wooly Thyme that I use as groundcovers instead of grass. But I love my native Littleleaf Pussytoes just as much.

My garden with non-native snow in summer (Cerastium tomentosum), rock cress (Aubrieta), and native phlox and candytuft. All seriously drought-tolerant in the hottest part of my yard.

My side garden with non-native Veronica and Wooly Thyme with native Sulfur Buckwheat.

I think that the goal for all of us should be to include lots of plants favorable to pollinators. The Royal Horticultural Society study offers tips for gardeners who want to support pollinators. I've modified them only slightly:

  1. Plant a mix of flowering plants from different parts of the world.
  2. Try to have more plants that are native to your area. Exotic plants can be used to extend the season (especially late summer flowering) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators. 
  3. Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers your garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.

The RHS provided a list of suitable pollinator plants for the Northern Hemisphere (not the UK). You can get it here

So, don't give up your peonies. Enjoy them as well as your other non-native plants. Embrace diversity! But don't argue with plant purists. We can all get along.

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