Three years ago this spring I wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times (my third) about the then raging “natives versus exotics” controversy. They called it “Border Wars” and it contained a typo (8,000 versus 12,000 years ago for the recession of the last glaciers, due to my confusion over BC and AD). Otherwise, it was nearly flawless. However, I received a bit of negative mail. Some in the media got contentious—but I still think I was generally correct.
Anyway, it was great fun to engage the purists—the majority being academics—in a debate, even if it was from behind notebooks, keypads and office desks. I hope one day to have an exchange with these folks in public. Maybe even in a garden.
Also, thanks to Francois Korn at Seed Quest for publishing the follow-up piece in June, 2006, after the barrage subsided.
By the way, does anyone else feel like spring of 2006 was a decade ago?
The horticultural world is having its own debate over immigration, with some environmentalists warning about the dangers of so-called exotic plants from other countries and continents “invading” American gardens. These botanical xenophobes say that a pristine natural state exists in our yards and that to disturb it is both sinful and calamitous. In their view, exotic plants will swallow your garden, your neighbors’ gardens and your neighbors’ neighbors’ gardens until the ecosystem collapses under their rampant suffocating growth.
If anything suffocates us, though it will be the environmentalists’ narrow-mindedness. Like all utopian visions, their dream beckons us into a perfect and rational natural world where nothing ever changes—a world that never existed and never will.
Native plants are the survivalists of the botanical world and in their appropriate settings—wilderness areas, home and botanical gardens, public parks and sidewalks—they bless us with their beauty and awe us with their tenacity. Our lives would be poor and grim without the strawberry, cranberry, columbine and trillium. They’ve always been here, in the same way that Native Americans have been; only their arrival and settlement are more ancient.
Their presence illustrates a geologic time, about 12,000 years ago when the last glaciers receded and unimaginable vast deluges swallowed the surface of the future United States—an airplane ride over the Midwest reveals enormous lakes formed by even larger melted ice masses. As the landscape changed, the botanical world sorted itself out, leaving us with the hardy “natives”. (It should be noted, though, that many plants now considered natives—like sycamores, magnolias and cinnamon—arrived from other continents, just as we did. They are products of adaptation.)
Like human survivalists, natives are also subject to exploitation by the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists. The anti-exotics argue that gardens should be populated exclusively by native plants, as if the exotics were trying to enter the flowerbed illegally. The consequences of such a stand could be dire. Should we eat no onions or garlic, apples or lemons; feast our eyes on no magnificent tulips or roses—all exotics of Eurasian origin? Should Asians not enjoy their distinctive peppers, tomatoes, beans, squash, sunflowers and corn—all from the Americas?
Indeed, the world’s most popular root crop, potatoes, started life as a staple of the Andean people and achieved its first international fame as a slave food. By the time it reached France, the “earth apple” was a delicacy likened to truffles; their flowers were featured in tiaras of court ladies. Exotic indeed.
Should we deprive ourselves of petunias, begonias, impatiens and hollyhocks—not a one of them “native”? Must we, on pain of being cast out of the garden as horticultural pariahs, deny the elephant his peanuts? This wouldn’t be merely ridiculous. It would compare with the denial of human immigration on grounds that certain ethnic groups breed in numbers “too prolific” for the existing elite to tolerate. Imagine, then, a horticultural ruling class. No “invasives” need apply; let the lily find another valley. Such stupid prohibitions of exotic plant species demonstrate only an elitist snobbery that is as dangerous to a free society as it is to a free botany.
No one, and certainly no gardener, grows truly destructive invasive plants in his garden. The devastating kudzu in the South, star thistle in the West and purple loosestrife in the East were accidental introductions from Asia, most often mixed with the feed and bedding of livestock. Yet the pro-native, anti-exotic partisans also wish us to stop enjoying the charms of harmless and beautiful plants like Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, and chicory. Aside from requiring a bit of weeding, exotics are safe as milk, unless one considers gardening a chore rather than a passionate hobby. If so, forget the forget-me-nots.
Let’s welcome, as spring arrives tomorrow, as many “huddled masses” of flowers, herbs and vegetables as can fit in our unique melting pot of a nation, unrivaled in its tradition of lush diversity and freedom to grow rampantly.
THE NEW YORK TIMES March 19, 2006
NO PLANT LEFT BEHIND
Editorial by George Ball, Chairman and CEO, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
After taking up the controversial subject of natives versus exotic or “invasive” garden plants in the New York Times Op/Ed pages (see summary below), I learned that although most people agreed, those who didn’t were dissenters who waged a war of personal attacks and threats of embargo on my company. Missing was any mention, much less refutation, of the facts. It was as if I violated a taboo. Not true. And I certainly did not advocate growing kudzu in one’s garden, as some suggested. In fact, I pointed out kudzu’s destructive nature in order to distinguish such truly menacing invasives from those that are, as I said, “safe as milk”. Indeed, someone please cite for me the destruction wrought upon our nation by the dandelion, our most common invasive garden weed, brought to our shores from Asia. Also, please share it with the hundreds of dandelion farmers in the U.S.
To reiterate, the earth is not a super model; no healthy, vital landscape that includes our dynamic human presence can tolerate the horticultural plastic surgery and botanical bulimia advocated by the gardening extremists, who’ve been seduced by the ideology of “Native Plants Only”. Again, I suggest that extremism, in the direction either of “pristinism” on the one hand or of unkempt, chaotic gardens and overrun, broken-caged landscapes on the other, is wrong. Simply stated, the dangers, both real and perceived, of invasives and exotics have been harmfully exaggerated, as have the virtues of natives. The gardening public should be informed—not proselytized. Science and scientific opinion in the service of ideology is no science at all, as in the case of Lysenko and his theory of inherited skills, so favored by Stalin. Far from stinging, Swiftian satire, my proposal, however modest, meant to be playful as well as provocative—a romp rather than a grim-faced, frontal assault on the ornamental “true believers”, hysterically blinded by the sight of too many petunias, morning glories, salvias and impatiens.
With rare exceptions, such as Luther Burbank and L.H. Bailey, America has long suffered a lack of horticultural imagination. We are a “can do” nation, puritanically oriented away from pleasure gardens. Recently, on his new TV show, ex-Disney boss Mike Eisner announced, “Type A’s cannot do gardening”. (He wants yet another by-pass—the new status symbol.) When we want beautiful gardens, we pay a fee to see them in magic kingdoms, grown in neat rows by immigrant labor. Heaven forbid we ever actually touch a plant. Therefore, it’s not surprising that our gardening industry leaders turn, like sunflower heads, to the UK and the Continent and, lately Japan where the fortunate inhabitants bask in the colorful glow of hybridized exotics. For well over a hundred years, some of America’s prettiest natives have been “discovered” by Europeans and Japanese, hybridized in their adopted homes and reintroduced to us. Why? Mainly because the citizens of these nations are better educated and, therefore, less politicized about plants. They have the creativity to appreciate the entire spectrum of botany, not just what their professors and environmental pundits tell them. Free from such influences, they enjoy the simple virtues of the strong colors, forms and textures found in the many plants of our fabulous, robust country—both wild and tame.
I wish only for our nation’s tent—and garden—to be big. Many of my critics, especially those in higher education, desire a small seldom-visited, state-supported garden where they can control events, set the agenda and manage the debate. As in M. Night Shamalyan’s recent, ‘The Village’, a false mythology and religion must keep the citizens in line and trapped in a small and shallow world. Outside the lonely campuses with their ivory towered gardens, the rest of us enjoy a free and beautiful country.
SEED QUEST June, 2006