Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Native Plant Myth #3: Native Plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants

I am dedicating the last of my series on “Myths about Native Plants” to a subtle but widely held misconception.  I believe that this particular misconception is the number one reason that prevents people from embracing natives more fully in designed landscapes. 
Myth 3: Native plants are not as showy or ornamental as exotic plants.
It’s not that people think that native plants are ugly; rather, when it comes to choosing plants, natives are perceived to be a bit more natural, less over-the-top-bloomy than exotic garden plants.  Walk into your local garden center and just try to resist the seduction of a lipstick-red Knockout Rose or the voluptuous softball-sized flowers of a Limelight Hydrangea.  The native section, by comparison, is populated by a sad collection of leggy, dull perennials.
Dogtooth Violet
When I was in graduate school, I took my girlfriend to the local botanical garden.   I had just finished a class on native plants, and I wanted to show her how wonderful and unappreciated our local plants were.  When we arrived, the native garden was hard to distinguish from the unmanaged woodland next to it, and the only plant blooming was a Dogtooth Violet.  I got on my knees to show her how delicate and beautiful this little plant was.  It was so exquisite it barely existed.  She seemed unimpressed.  On our way out of the garden, we passed a tulip border that was so colorful, so showy, I was convinced one could see it from the moon.  She exclaimed, “Now that’s beautiful!”  I knew then my cause was lost.
Since then, I have designed plantings for scores of gardens and public landscapes, particularly large scale perennial plantings.  I use native plants interchangeably with exotics for incredibly showy borders and beds.   The palette of native plants I use is large and knock-your-socks-off bloomy.  Turn-your-head saturated with color.  Va-va voom impact.  In fact, natives from the American prairie are incredibly popular right now in European designed gardens.  The problem is not that native plants are intrinsically less ornamental than exotics; the problem is one of design.  Native gardens, for the most part, overly imitate natural plant communities.  Native gardens end up looking like some poor imitation of a woodland or meadow.   As a result, we have no precedent for natives in man-made landscapes.
A border of mostly American natives designed by Piet Oudolf; photo by Neil Block
Listen up native plant advocates: until native plants are shown to be beautiful, they will never be fully embraced by the American public.  The argument about habitat and the environment are good, but what people ultimately want in their landscapes is something pretty.  What we are missing are native plant gardens dedicated to showing the ornamental beauty of native plants.  Each time a new native garden imitates a natural habitat, we reinforce the notion that native plants aren’t worthy in the designed landscapes. 
This is exactly why the New Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Garden excites me so much.  The 3.5-acre garden currently under construction will showcase “the beauty and diversity of native plants and the best in contemporary garden design.”  Vice President Todd Forrest created much of the vision for the garden as a “departure from the habitat-based model that has shaped the design of many public native plant gardens.”  Instead, the garden will be “foremost a beautiful garden with native plants providing both seasonal spectacle and year-round structure.”  NYBG has charged Oehme, van Sweden and Associates (OvS) to design the gardens.  Principal Sheila Brady,  project manager Hilary Oat-Judge, and others at OvS are creating a series of garden rooms to work with the site’s diverse topography, hydrology, and habitats. 
The previous garden, according to Forrest, featured a series of regional ecosystems such as the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Long Island’s Hempstead Plains, and a serpentine barren.  But these ecosystems became impossible to maintain at such a small scale.  Forrest says, “Aggressive generalists overran their more demure counterparts, and the various habitats quickly lost their character.”  What’s worse, says Forrest, is that “the garden seemed designed to preach to the choir and ignore the congregation.  Native plant enthusiasts noted the presence of their favorite taxa, while the general public was left wondering exactly where the ‘garden’ was.”
The focus of the new garden is on the quality of the design, not on imitating a habitat.  I had the pleasure of working on the early stages of this project at OvS.  I can say with confidence: the designs for this space are outstanding.  The design will, in Forrest’s words, “redefine what a native plant garden can be.”  The garden will feature bold, contemporary geometry of boardwalks, bio-filtering water features, and modern plantings.  The garden is slated to open in 2012.  Here is a link with more information about the garden.
What is so exciting about this new garden is that it sheds the nostalgia of other native plant gardens that look backwards to some declining ecosystem.  This garden looks to the future.  It will be a model that shows that native plants can populate and beautify the places that need them the most: our front yards, public parks, and corporate landscapes. 


  1. I really enjoyed your article. In my experience and as you stated, people want a pretty landscape. If we design the landscape and use natives like any other ornamental, people will embrace their beauty. Then, it's a win-win!

    I am glad I found your site!

  2. I think this post is inspired. I wish there more gardening books that dealt with native plants in just this fashion. Love your quote: "Listen up native plant advocates: until native plants are shown to be beautiful, they will never be fully embraced by the American public."

  3. Wow...I had never really thought of it that way, but I think you may have hit the nail on the head. I admit, even though I tend to be "conscious" of natives, I was designing my backyard this spring and was considering which grasses I was going to use. I started with the usual ones, Miscanthus, Pennisetum, etc. Then, spurred on by my recent love of Schizachrynium, I started poking around about other native grasses. Lo and behold...what a bevy of beauties! Sorghastrum, Andropogon...such wonderful grasses, and ones that I'm ashamed to admit, grew all around my childhood house in Nebraska. In the prarie, they were merely "there", but you are right, put them in a traditional border and they were statuesque beauties, rivaling any exotic grass.

  4. Scott,

    That's exactly what first got me turned on to natives. It wasn't so much the environmental argument, but it was discovering how many wonderful, showy, and garden worthy plants there are. I'm convinced one could design a flower border of nothing but U.S. natives that rivals Great Dixter. Hmmm, maybe I'll have to try that. Thomas

  5. Bullseye! I always try to emphasize what you also say, "The problem is not that native plants are intrinsically less ornamental than exotics; the problem is one of design. Native gardens, for the most part, overly imitate natural plant communities. Native gardens end up looking like some poor imitation..."

    Some people do not like that, but the truth hurts. But those who do get it, some are my clients and all are far more thoughtful.

  6. Thomas, I think you made some great points. More designs like Piet Oudolf with masses of natives to inspire people.
    I have seen some excellent residential native landscapes in the midwest in both formal and informal designs that were very effective and would prompt anyone to buy more natives.

    It is also a question of perception. Why do we as a society devalue the look of our natural landscapes? We are always seem to be drawn to something different or unique or more colorful or more organized. We just can't handle the natural chaos, it's unsettling I guess.

    Christopher Lloyd did an excellent job of combining the natural with the formal at Great Dixter and I agree this would be an interesting design with our native plants.

  7. This is an excellent post. In my own design practice, I strive to use natives emphasizing design first. Not every native garden has to be a meadow or wildlife habitat or mimic natural landscapes. The wide variety of natives-- including a new wave of native selections and cultivars coming to market--work in both informal and formal designs.

  8. Each time I read your posts, my concept of a garden is stretched and challenged. I love the concept of an over the top blooming native border. That would change the way people see natives.

  9. The New Native Plant garden might make a trip to New York worth considering! One of my favorite gardens is the Lurie garden in Chicago.
    Lucky you for gettiing to work on it.

    It's true, as the linked information points out, we can't recreate natural communities in small spaces; as soon as we make choices, why, we are gardeners and may as well practice some design.

    But also: does appreciating native plants, or getting casual garden visitors to appreciate them require a shift in our aesthetic paradigm and educating others to that shift?

    I remember so clearly when I discovered (to echo a previous comment) that grasses are beautiful, and when I learned that flowers are much more beautiful with pollinators than without.

  10. A related marketing liability of native plants is that they tend not to have catchy cultivar names. As I nursery owner I know that the name of the plant is often as important as its ultimate look in convincing the customer to buy. That's one of the reasons why all these new native heucheras are so marketable: who can resist 'Sugar Plum', 'Southern Comfort', and 'Midnight Rose'. Doug Tallamy and I have been tossing around the idea of giving catchy cultivar names reflecting the native's benefit to the environment to straight species native plants, for example, Quercus rubra 'Wildlife Queen' (obviously we would need to get those marketing people involved). What do you think?

  11. Carolyn,

    What a fascinating concept! I had a client who requested Hydrangea quercifolia 'Alice' just because she had a daughter named that. I think it would work, especially if the wildlife value were somehow embedded in it.

  12. Great post, Thomas, and also a very interesting discussion. Trying to convince gardeners that they should forgo pretty in favor of native will never work; emphasizing the ways you can make a pretty garden with natives seems like a much more successful approach -- and if nursery owners like Carolyn can find a way to give them catchy cultivar names, too, so much the better! -Jean

  13. Wow, Piet Oudolf's use of natives is gorgeous. I love your perspective.

  14. Seed sowing is the first step towards gardening. Gardening is a beautiful habit and hobby to follow as it gives content to the heart and peace to the mind. Even I have a small garden in my backyard.

  15. Thomas

    I'll look forward to seeing the NYBG's new Native Plant Garden on my next trip to New York. The design concept sounds incredibly intriguing.

    At this time of year I tend to recall my last Springtime visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where curator Uli Lorimer keeps their Native Plant Garden in tip-top shape.

    I love the delicacy of native blooms. That said, your approach sounds provocative and challenging in the best of ways. Future forward makes sense.

  16. Albeit belatedly, I've added Grounded Design to the Bevy of Blogs page on Bay Area Tendrils.
    Alice's Garden Travel Buzz

  17. Garden style are always very important to choose as they should be unique and should have a some good specifications as they hold your impression.

  18. Thomas ChristopherFebruary 02, 2011 8:37 PM

    A really interesting point. As a student, I worked in the NYBG Native Plants Garden, and in those days to showcase those ecosystems in a public garden was almost revolutionary. But I agree that Natives won't catch on with the public if we only present them as a sort of ecological duty. I've spoken to Sheila Brady about the new design and it sounds like its going to be spectacular.

  19. Funny how sometimes I just "do" without much thought: I plant picking favorites then throw in an interesting garden element (broken clay pot or something) and when I stop to consider your post I see that I am evocative, for sure (I want to hide in my lavender), but also appreciate provocative. I love Chanticleer Gardens, for example, but go for less-wild in my yard.

    This is what you do so well--you make me stop and think. Then plant on. Thanks Thomas!


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