Native American Gardens
Don’t get me wrong…I love native plants! But we need to be honest and accurate about why we incorporate them in contemporary landscapes.
At a great lecture last week, one speaker proposed that we use them in order to achieve, among other things, ‘authentically native’ landscapes. That’s a notion I have some trouble with. This speaker is well-aware of the human impacts on pre-European environments in North America. But others are not.
In two awesome books that came out several years ago..1491 and 1493…author Charles Mann examines the impact of the ‘Columbian Exchange’. Originally the continents of the world were attached. Over time they drifted apart and became separated by oceans. (perhaps a geological metaphor for human relationships?) This distance was bridged for the first time during the 1400s and 1500s by Christopher Columbus and others. Native Americans were devastated by diseases to which they were not previously exposed. Animals and plants were exchanged for the first time. Cultures were blended or overtaken.
Gardeners who aspire to ‘authentically native’ landscapes, I believe, are pursuing a nebulous objective that never truly existed. There is a notion that prior to the arrival of Europeans our continent was a placid, immutable garden-of-eden. In reality, nature never permits anything like that to exist, at least not for very long. All creatures and plants continually scramble and leap for an elusive jump ball.
Author Charles Mann provides evidence that Native Americans existed in much larger populations than previously thought. And, clearly, they were mucking around with things. Indian ‘fire regime’ altered woodlands and meadows throughout the East. The Pilgrims sent back word that the local forests were so hospitable ‘you could drive a carriage through them’. Fifty years later, once the indigenous populations had been quelled, these same areas were tangled with naturally-occurring understory. Similar regimes in the Great Lakes areas may have enabled some prairie plants to remain in predominantly forested areas (like Ohio!).
Early Europeans were also amazed at the quantity of mast in coastal areas, when this was also a product of anthropogenic manipulation. The Native Americans had been practicing their own nut tree culture to increase the yield of acorns, butternuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts near populated areas.
The Iroquois Nations which predominated in the Eastern Great Lakes at the time of European arrival, utilized companion-planting of ‘the three sisters’: winter squash, corn and beans. The corn…’domesticated’ around 8000 BC in MesoAmerica…was planted first…the squash and beans later. Together they provided a microclimate for growth, reduced weeds, enhanced the soil and offered a balanced human diet. Western tribes added a ‘fourth sister’…cleome…which attracted pollinators.
So let’s go ahead and incorporate native plants or establish ‘totally native’ landscapes. Let’s use the 1750s as our benchmark for ‘native plants’ (it’s the only functional benchmark we have!). Let’s use ‘natives’ to provide a payback in ecosystem services and a ‘connection’ with our pre-European ecology.
Let’s continue to establish ‘prairie gardens’ where few prairies existed, because there is an intrinsic beauty and a treasure-trove in biodiversity in these flowering meadows.
Maybe I’m just arguing about semantics…again! Using more native plants and encouraging ‘natural biodiversity’ is a good thing, whatever the reason. But if our goal is to recapture a snapshot of one moment in our ever-changing ecological history…a time before all those cranky European ancestors of ours moved into the neighborhood…let’s call it a ‘Native American Garden’!