Native Enthusiasm

– Posted in: Native/Invasive

chicory 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.

chicory flowers

Chicory flowers are most often seen from a seat in a car

Chicory flowers are most often seen from a seat in a car. My efforts at transplanting were made out of flowering season, so it wasn’t until this morning, idling with Roan along the roadside, that I picked a flower and looked at it closely. Did you know – yes, of course you did – that the flowers are double, with an inner ‘disc’ of five ‘petals’ and an outer ring of 10 ‘rays’ (they all look exactly like petals to me), and that the square-tipped petals are elegantly fringed? There is no discernible fragrance, a quality unnecessary in a plant seen from a speeding vehicle. The flowers may sometimes be pink or white, though I have never seen those, and I would be overjoyed if some gardening friend were to bring a plant or two to our rural road.

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.”

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Lorraine October 24, 2010, 10:50 am

Hi Brian,

When I was trying to explain the color I wanted for my wedding dress I brought in a bouquet of chicory flowers . Wanting to have the plant in my rain garden I gathered seeds from plants flourishing happily along the road. No luck with germination. The following year, I dug up several plants along the road (I got permission from the farmer whose field abutted the road–although I must admit that my request elicited not a few guffaws, chuckles and shaking of head) while they were VERY young. The tap roots were still short enough to get the entire root. I think that was the key. Now I have several plants in my rain garden–where they have decided to self seed PROLIFICALLY.

Brian Bixley October 24, 2010, 1:46 pm

Lorraine, Good for you, good advice, and the wedding dress must have been beautiful. I liked your story about the sceptical farmer. We live in what is still predominantly a farm community, so we have some experience of that scepticism, but over the years – after “some guffaws, chuckles and shaking of head” – our neighbours have become generally supportive. Brian

patty October 22, 2010, 4:42 pm

A very interesting and thought provoking post Brian. I have been a native plant enthusiast for the past ten years and find that I am always questioning myself what I consider to be native. And over the years that decision changes. I believe in the reasons to use native plants as commented by a couple of previous posters. Yet I also am aware that we are not able to control our physical environment and the forces of Mother Nature. Birds bring seeds across seas and oceans, storms and hurricanes move plant, seed and animal around without asking them. Of course the human equation enters into it as well because the grass is always greener on the other side. Who is to say with any certainty that once a seed is sown in its ‘native’ habitat that it should always remain there. Why should I believe that, when I have seen plants reseed themselves from one area of my garden to another, or plants moving themselves to their preferred shade or sunny spot. I don’t have an answer and suspect I never will.

commonweeder October 22, 2010, 8:50 am

Brian – What an excellent post. Thank you. I am fortunate to live near Nasami Farm, home to the propagation greenhouses of the New England Wildflower Society ( where I can buy many excellent native plants for my gardens. I am also a big fan of Douglas Tallamy and Bringing Nature Home for his excellent information, and charming prose style.

Les October 20, 2010, 7:51 pm

When I say native, I mean at least native to my region, the southeastern coastal plain. These plants have evolved in our sometimes droughty, often swampy, always humid environment. Basically something they would see growing in a wild area near their own home, and I do count cultivars of natives as native.

Alice October 20, 2010, 12:12 pm

Brian, thank you for your elegantly thought-provoking columns, the brief glimpses into your beautiful garden, and the wisdom of your responses to our comments. I agree that “native” is loosely used. Determining what is native to one’s own region, acreage, and microclimates is difficult. What grows wild where I live in Ulster Co. (NY), in the foothills of the Catskills, includes lots of non-natives, like chicory, Queen Anne’s Lace, Centaurea, and purple loosestrife (which finally overgrew a lovely patch of Chelone in my wet meadow). But I have found invaluable information and resources in nurseries Catskill Native Nursery (NY) or Project Native (MA), and organizations like the New England Wildflower Society (which also sells seeds from its collections); the nearby Cary Ecological Institute offers workshops on plants native to the Northeast. To narrow down my definition of “native” I’ve turned to Donald Leopold’s Native Plants of the Northeast (Timber Press 2005), Gwendolyn Thunhorst’s Wetland Planting Guide for the Northeastern United States (Environmental Concern 1993), Homer House’s classic Wild Flowers (NYS 1934), Wildflowers of New York by William K. Chapman et al. (Syracuse UP 1998), Anne McGrath’s WildFlowers of the Adirondacks (EarthWords 2000), and the USDA Plants data base ( NYFA Flora Atlas ( and New York Rare Plant Status Lists June 2008, ed. Stephen M. Young (NY Heritage Program) indicate in what counties plants have been found. The NYFA blog lists plants as they bloom, especially in spring and early summer. William Cullina’s Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin 2000) offers descriptions, photos, and a guide to germination, as do the catalogue and web site of Prairie Moon (MN) . Each resource points to others. The best reflect close observation in nature and diligence in the garden, which is why I, a rank beginner, so value blogs like Cold Climate Gardening and the reflections of Kathy and Brian. Thank you, Alice

Alice October 19, 2010, 10:02 pm

The best argument for native plants is offered by entomologist Douglas Tallamy, in his book Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2007). Briefly, Tallamy argues that because fauna depend on the nutrients, for example, of the specific plants with which they have co-evolved, replacing native with non-native plants starves native birds, butterflies, beetles, etc. Among trees and shrubs, oaks, for example, support 517 species of native Lepidoptera, blueberry and cranberry 288 native species; by comparison, while Eucalyptus stellulata supports 48 species of herbivores in its regions of origin, in North America it feeds only 1 species. Reestablishing and protecting the plants native to a region or micro-climate are ways to preserve songbirds, butterflies, and moths by encouraging the insect herbivores, berries, etc. that they eat or require for reproduction.

Brian Bixley October 20, 2010, 7:53 am

Alice, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’d like to write you a long, considered reply, but I have a garden (not a woodlot or a wildlife sanctuary; more on that below) to put away. So v. briefly: (1) I keep trying to say, as gently as possible, that without some further qualification, the word ‘native’ as applied to plants is more-or-less useless. Does one mean (in our case) ‘continental North America’, ‘the United States’, ‘a state within the US’, a county, a township, a local community, a micro-climate within the community?; (2) We have a tulip tree, a liquidambar, a stewartia growing in our garden. All are north American, but not one is, in any useful sense, ‘native’ to where I garden. Not one is locally indigenous, though the tulip tree is a denizen of the Carolinian forest, parts of which can be found in Toronto, 70 miles away; (3) Since it is unwise for a gardener to buy ‘native’ plants a better word might be ‘local’ – without some clearer definition, why do people continue to treat ‘native’ as a recommendation? I offered 2 explanations, one of which I was sceptical of; (4) I am making a garden, trying (mostly failing) to achieve a vision (we can all fill in our own inescapably pretentious word). In my book, I quote J.B. Jackson: “At a time like the present when we are being bullied into worshiping the wilderness, we need to remember our heritage as gardeners, and what the garden stands for in our domestic civilization.” Brian

Liz October 19, 2010, 12:44 pm

Loved this post. I’ll buy native plants, but combine them with plenty of exotics. The only time I think exotics are bad is when they out compete everything, and replace more valuable plants. Dyer’s woad comes to mind. Completely unpalatable, and overtaking the foothills of Utah. I’ve always looked at chicory as a weed, (I first learned about it in a weeds class), but not anymore!

Leslie Shields October 19, 2010, 9:44 am

Alas, I began reading with the hope of learning the secret to introducing chicory – I have a meadow without it though it grows freely down the road. I too long for those blue flowers.

Brian Bixley October 19, 2010, 12:50 pm

Why don’t you – why didn’t I? – try seed? There should be lots available about now, so gather some, scratch the soil in a relatively uncolonised part of the roadside, and sow it.

Les October 19, 2010, 7:15 am

As someone who sells plants for a living, I don’t push natives to the exclusion of exotics. However, I know what is native and gladly steer people in that direction if they express an interest. I also find it interesting that when people are having trouble finding a plant to live in a troublesome spot, the plants that can put up with it are more often than not a native. In my own garden I don’t make buying decisions based on native vs. exotic, but have ended up with a varied mix of both without really trying.

Brian Bixley October 19, 2010, 12:56 pm

Les, You are obviously a responsible seller. The real question, one that you haven’t quite replied to, is “Native to where?” If you mean ‘Native to where the customer plans to put the plant,” there’s a good chance that she already has it (in her garden, in the fields, along the roadside). If it isn’t native to that site, it is in a very real sense an ‘exotic’ as much as if it came from Brazil. I suppose you could recommend a Zauschneria (from California, and therefore ‘native’) to someone in S. Dakota, but it’s not likely to do very well.

Frances October 19, 2010, 5:28 am

What a stimulating post, Brian! And thanks Kathy for sharing your forum with such a distinguished writer. Here in Tennessee, the defense of the native plants in the national forests of the Smoky Mountains against the aggressive aliens has taken on epic battle proportions. They are trying to preserve the wildflowers and trees that were here originally from the overreaching exotics, especially in times of drought and pestilence. The winner of the battle has yet to be determined. But we do love the Chicory as well. 🙂