George Ball, president of Burpee Seed Co., went on a little rant this weekend in the New York Times. His point, I think, is that proponents of man-made native plantings, whether in private or public settings, have become too dedicated to their cause — "the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists" — and that we should instead celebrate the "petunias, begonias, impatiens and hollyhocks" that apparently make life worth living.
Uh... dude? WTF? I have yet to meet a pro-native gardener or nurseryman who wants us "to stop enjoying the charms of harmless and beautiful plants like Queen Anne's lace, yarrow and chicory." In fact, most pro-native folks I know recognize the value of these non-natives in attracting beneficial organisms such as pollinators and predator wasps to the garden.
But one only needs to glance around the coastal hillsides throughout California to see just how opportunistic "exotics" such as Mr. Ball's own Pink Pampas Grass clearly have overstayed their welcome, leaving little room for any other plant that could actually contribute to the local ecosystem instead of stealing resources like a freeloader grazing his way through Costco. Sorry, Mr. Ball, but to claim that "No one, and certainly no gardener, grows truly destructive invasive plants in his garden," when your own company sells the invasive Cortaderia for home gardens, is delusional. I already have talked one client — an Argentine nostalgic for the pampas of his youth — out of planting this weed, and surely will again.
Perhaps what Mr. Ball meant to say, and I may be taking liberties here, is that no one intends to grow destructive plants. No one wishes to be the object of his neighbors' scorn because his Algerian ivy doesn't respect their property line. No one imagines that their cute little shrub with the lemon-yellow flowers could possibly want to live anywhere but that one spot in her yard. But the next thing you know, the Scotch broom is covering the landscape so thickly as to create a monoculture that suppresses biodiversity up and down the food chain.
And this is the problem — not with introduced species, but with human nature: we are short-sighted optimists with even shorter memories. In our haste to endow our own gardens with nature's beauty, we forget to consider our neighbors, both near and distant. We assume that because our intentions aren't bad, our plants won't behave badly. We congratulate ourselves on learning our parents' lesson that ivy is not a suitable ground cover for small spaces — and then plant Vinca major instead.
Mr. Ball, no one —not even the most passionate advocate of native plants — wants to enslave the world with totalitarian "prohibitions of exotic plant species". We all recognize the value of the tomato, and the beauty of the tulip. But we also know the dangers of a monoculture (which, by the way, you forgot to mention in your canonization of the potato). In fact, you are right on one count: "lush diversity" is exactly the goal of any good gardener. And we want to experience that diversity not only in the beauty of the flowers we plant, but also in the butterflies, birds, and other creatures that visit them. Which is precisely why we must judiciously limit the use of "exotics" that have the potential to overwhelm native and non-native species alike.
Don't worry, Mr. Ball: in modern society, there's little chance that your company won't be able to sell your non-native petunias and impatiens. We just want to make sure we see a few non-non-natives around, too.