Sunday, April 3, 2011

Native vs. Non-native Plants: Smackdown

Today, WWE’s WrestleMania comes to Atlanta, and I can’t help but think about the native vs. non-native plants “battle” that some of us consider every day.  Of course the problem is mostly that there are many people that don’t consider this every day – in fact they don’t even have the resources to do so.  What native plants need is a really good PROMOTER like some of the characters in WWE.

GA-EPPC Invasive Plant Monster

Unless you go to a special nursery (or at least something better than a “home improvement” store), plants are not usually labeled as “native”.  Some stores don’t even provide scientific names on their plant labels - personally, I think that should be a crime (or at the very least some kind of “no-no”). 

I was in Lowes the other day, and they have a big display of summer bulbs and dormant woody plants; one plant is simply labeled “Honeysuckle”.  The picture on the label shows pink flowers so I’m fairly certain that it is Lonicera x ‘Bella’ which is a hybrid of non-native (and invasive) shrub honeysuckles.  Lowes does a disservice to its customers in not only stocking this plant in Georgia but also in not giving people the information that they need to realize what they are purchasing.  In some areas of the Southeastern U.S., Georgia included, if you plant this shrub then it will eventually “smackdown” most native plants nearby.

I encourage everyone to research the plants that they want to buy.  Even research the plants you have already bought!  Perhaps you made an impulse buy and now you have the plant at home.  Get on the computer and look it up.  Figure out if it is native, if it’s not, if it’s invasive, if it will work in the conditions that you have available.  How many of you buy a shirt and then return it later because you reconsidered or it didn’t match what you have already?  If you research this plant and it is not right for you, take it back!  And if you’re bold enough, tell them the real reason you’re returning it:

- “I don’t have the right conditions after all.”
- “I looked it up and it gets bigger than I thought it would.”
- “I was looking for something native and I thought this was but now I know it’s not.”
- “I found out that it’s invasive and I don’t want to buy invasive plants.”

Perhaps you have something already planted in the yard and now your research tells you it is invasive or perhaps not necessarily invasive but you’d rather have something native.  How about if you sneak up on it like a WWE wrestler with a folding chair and take it out when it’s not looking?  Then you can have some fun researching a replacement!  I love being in the position of having to find something new - the research time makes the whole experience that much longer (and enjoyable).

Here are a few Georgia native alternatives for common non-native landscape plants:

-         White blooming ornamental pears like ‘Bradford’, ‘Cleveland Select’ and ‘Aristocrat’ can be replaced with other spring blooming trees like Serviceberry (Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’ or ‘Princess Diana’) and Hawthorn (Crataegus ‘Winter King’)

Serviceberry, Amelanchier sp.

-         Shrubs with red fall color like Burning Bush can be replaced with native Blueberries.  If you want fruit as well, be sure to plant at least two cultivars that have the same season and different names (like ‘Climax’ and ‘Premier’).  UGA has a great publication for home blueberry growing

Native blueberry, Vaccinium sp.

-         Stiff and soldier-like privacy hedges like Leyland Cypress can be replaced with a mixed screen of native evergreen trees like Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera), Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), American holly (Ilex opaca and Ilex x attenuata) cultivars, Magnolias (Magnolia), and Carolina Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana).  A mixed screen is more interesting, looks more natural and reduces the chance that a single disease will affect your whole screen.

Wax myrtle with berries, Morella cerifera

-         Meatball foundation shrubs like Japanese holly can be replaced by softer yet structured shrubs like dwarf Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera ‘Don’s Dwarf), dwarf Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia ‘Minuet’) and dwarf Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’) – but leave it unpruned except for stray branches.  Consider mixing in a few deciduous shrubs for a more interesting mix of textures and blooms.

-         Have too many early spring blooms (like forsythia and spirea) and want some late spring blooming shrubs to extend the season?  Consider Fothergilla, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) and Viburnum - Viburnum cassinoides and Viburnum acerifolium are both good for me and also have great fall color. Here is a picture of Fothergilla major that I took just minutes ago:

Fothergilla major

-         Fast growing trees are hard to come by but you don’t need to choose something non-native to see it grow in your lifetime.  Look for tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea), or one of the red maple cultivars like Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’.

Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea

I hope these ideas help you think more like a champion of native plants.  In today’s world, they sure could use someone to promote them – someone to get on a microphone and extol all their good virtues as they go into the match of their lives: “With a mature height of 8 feet 2 inches and a mature width of 5 feet, this spring blooming shrub is a favorite among native pollinators and fairly drought tolerant as well; as a bonus it has fabulous fall color, is a host plant to 26 different types Lepidoptera and has berries that provide food for 5 different kinds of wildlife ….  And in the opposing corner is a boisterous shrub from the mountains of China ….”

If you can’t find them in your nursery, do ask for them.  Nurseries don’t know you’re looking for something if you don’t tell them - they think people are happy to buy whatever they’re stocking.  It’s up to us to tell them otherwise.


  1. And the photos are awesome...we need more native plant pictures in the Bugwood image database...would you contribute some?

  2. Sure, I would be happy to contribute photos. Another good source of photos is Mike Strickland, GNPS webmaster. Here is his website: