At last. Finally. Why chicory, Cichorium intybus, the blue flower of August roadsides, should have avoided our rural road for so long, is a mystery to me. So forlorn have I been made by its absence, when all neighbouring roads were bright with its sky-blue gaiety, that I have from time to time been tempted (mea culpa) to introduce it, always without success. ‘Introducing’ here equates with ‘transplanting’, something that the long thick taproot of chicory makes difficult. I should have tried seed, since the single plant now (September 14th.) flowering just to the east of our driveway must have come that way unless some kind neighbour, knowing of my longing and the deep taproot, moved a plant, perhaps while I was sleeping. It is unlikely that we shall be grinding up the root to make a coffee-substitute unless Mr. McGuinty introduces a ‘levy’ or a ‘debt repayment charge’ on coffee as a conservation measure, or blanching the leaves prior to putting them into a salad, as ‘Europeans’, who will eat anything (I quote, but I am not sure from whom), are said to do.
Wild, But Not Native
And so we can add chicory to a long list of roadside flowers that includes birdsfoot trefoil, nightshade, pink and white mallow, hawkweed, goatsbeard, daylily, Queen Anne’s Lace, St. John’s wort, ox-eye daisy, silvery cinquefoil, viper’s bugloss, and perennial sweet pea; an impressive list of beautiful flowers that may well have fuelled the ‘native plants’ enthusiasm that has swept across poets and stockbrokers with country places though, as it happens, not one of the plants in that above list is indigenous; every one was either introduced, arrived accidentally or is a garden escapee. Some of them would make good garden plants – if they didn’t grow so well along the roadside.
Why the Preference for Native Plants?
What is it that makes so many people announce an enthusiasm for ‘native’ plants, a preference for native plants over exotic alternatives as garden residents? Two reasons suggest themselves. The first is that native plants grow more strongly, are hardier and/or more beautiful. Is there any evidence to support these affirmations? Much depends on what is meant by ‘native.’ The flora of upper New York State is more likely than the flora of British Columbia to be successful in southern Ontario; plants that grow well on the acidic Canadian shield may languish on the alkaline soils of our Township, and even within your Township, your community, perhaps even on your street, there will be variations in soil conditions, snow cover, wind protection, rainfall, that will make some plants thrive and others fail whether or not they are ‘native.’ A high percentage of the plants we grow here are ‘native’ to somewhere, whether it be Canada, China, Japan or Turkey. Some succeed, some fail, but success or failure is not determined by the plants’ country of origin, but by whether the plants can adapt to the conditions that our garden can offer them (and, of course, we sometimes vary those conditions in order to try to make a plant grow). Yes, the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, grows well here, but so do A. triflorum from Manchuria and Korea, A. griseum and A. truncatum from China and A. maximowiczianum from Japan. A. circinatum, a small tree which turns marvellous shades of orange and crimson in the fall is from ‘Western North America’, and is horticulturally no more a native than the other maples listed.
Our Motives Are Seldom Unambiguous
There is a second possible explanation for gardeners choosing a ‘native’ plant when they could buy a more attractive ‘exotic’ where both have the same chances for success. It is that they think there is something patriotic, some sense of pride in country in doing so, even some economic benefit, as when we buy Canadian manufactured goods in preference to less expensive imports, hoping to cushion a local industry and save the jobs of workers, whereas when we buy a Sugar maple rather than a Paperbark maple, we are simply voting for more of the former and fewer of the latter, though it might be a matter of economic indifference to the nursery industry whether it produces one or the other. Is it possible that when we choose a ‘native’ plant another, less worthy motive is at work? Could an irrational fervour for ‘native’ be a tacit antipathy to its obverse – the alien, the exotic, the foreign? A recent book, Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America, by Philip J. Pauly suggests that, for ‘America’, i.e., the U.S., at least, it might.
Pauly’s book is “skilled, authoritative, insightful, and original, a pioneering exploration of innovation in American horticulture and its relationship to the natural environment” (I quote from Daniel J. Kevles review in the NYR). Pauly argues that horticultural improvement “has been as important as mechanical innovation in dramatically increasing the productivity and variety of American agriculture.” Much of this biological improvement has come about through the hybridization with, or introduction of, Old World plants. The introductions sometimes brought with them destructive pests, and both plants and pests were described as “aliens” or “foreign invaders”: when Japan agreed, in 1907, to limit the number of emigrants to the U.S., a field of Japanese cherries was planted two years later and Pauly comments, “a field of Japanese cherries in Washington was preferable to a settlement of Japanese working families in California.” In November 1918, an administrative order was issued prohibiting “the entry of most foreign nursery stock… the head of the US Forestry Association…called it the end of the ‘open door to plant immigrants’ and expressed the hope that ‘the treasonable activities of these enemy aliens will be curbed.’” Perhaps attitudes have changed, but our motives are seldom single, unambiguous. “Je m’étais trompé,” Proust wrote, with his habitual psychological precision, in Albertine disparue, “en croyant voir clair dans mon coeur.”