What’s a Native Plant, anyways?

June 7, 2016

Ask any tree-hugger what a native plant is and they will reply…a plant that was indigenous to North America prior to the arrival of Europeans…generally considered to be about 1750.


Does anyone else have problems with this?

First of all…there is a connotation that things were in a state of immutable perfection prior to 1750.

Let’s take a look at that…  The Indians were mucking around with ‘nature’ prior to that time.  Modern corn was originated around 8000 BC (by the Inca Chief Monsanto?) and spread across North America.               The Pilgrims remarked on the clustering of Chestnuts, Oaks, Butternuts and other prodigious producers of ‘mast’.  The Indians planted the trees this way!

Also, the Pilgrims remarked on the open nature of the woodlands…you could drive a wagon through them!  By fifty years hence…after they’d killed off the indigenous population in one of the bloodiest wars in our nation’s history…the woods were dominated by impenetrable underbrush.  By removing the Indians, they eliminated their ‘fire regime’, which dominated American forests throughout the east coast and great lakes for centuries.

So let’s forget about the influence of the ‘Native Americans’…

The other thing…is nature ever in an unchanging mode?

Let’s forget about the influence of Native Americans…Portugese explorers…Vikings!  Let’s forget about the influence of ‘human kind’!

Would ‘nature’ be the same in 2016 as it was in 1750 or prior…even without the agency of human-kind?

Of course not!

Nature is nothing if not dynamic and ever-changing.

So…if the 1750s are not our watershed for native plants…how far back do we go?  Native Americans?  Aztecs and Mayans?  Romans?  Egyptians?  Ancient cave-dwellers?

Here’s the thing.  And nobody is saying this…  Linneaus came along in the 1750s and established latin binomial nomenclature.  We all hate latin…(I do!) (I’m an English major!)…and we hate the nomenclature…especially when the taxonomists change it!  But this is the FIRST definitive labeling of botanical species everywhere on the planet.  The Linnaeus taxonomy came out around 1753.  Also at that time, the British were exploring our continent and documenting EVERYTHING with letters to one another and to the Royal Society in London. This documentation utilizes binomial nomenclature and it also utilizes a language that persists in America to this day.

So there it is…the 1750s provide a unique base-line  for plants in America.

So what?

Now we have to take a leap of faith…a leap to ‘native biodiversity’.  Are the ‘native plants’ that were here prior to the 1750s somehow superior to the subsequent horticultural introductions.  Presidents Washington and Jefferson believed in horticultural introduction.  America is a big place and, they believed, a big garden for planting.   So began modern horticulture…the ‘planting of America’.

Are we better off acknowledging ‘native plants’ and the existent botany prior to the 1750s?  I believe…yes…we are better off that way.  For this reason…it’s our first documented ‘base-line’ for America.  Should we appreciate those species that were here prior to this base-line?  Of course!

Should we dismiss those species and varieties and cultivars introduced by modern horticulture subsequent to the 1750s…of course not!

Did Washington and Jefferson and the horticulturists who followed (like Bill Hendricks!) introduce varieties that became invasive and reduced native biodiversity?  Yes they did!

There may have been ‘harm’…but there was no ‘malice’.  So that’s my quick answer on why we should all work to reestablish native biodiversity!  my email address is below.  Let me know what you think!


Mark Gilson

Tree hugger