For An All-American Yard, Go Native

10-01-1996 // Michael Lipske

When the Gore family of Washington, D.C., decided to fix up a run-down corner of their woodland property last fall, they went at it in a spirit of Americanism. Out came exotic weedy plants. In went native North American trees and flowers such as sweet gum, eastern redbud, witch hazel and jack-in-the-pulpit.

In all, the Gores arranged for the planting of more than 75 species one would expect to find in an eastern forest dominated by tulip poplar trees - just the sort of woods that grew in that part of the nation's capital long before the land and the house upon it were declared the official residence of the vice president of the United States.

The vice president's native landscaping (called an "Ecological Restoration Demonstration Project") was intended by the Gores to be a living symbol of environmental concern; Tipper Gore lauded it as an "environmentally sensitive alternative to traditional landscapes." However, gardeners who do not hold public office can also enjoy the benefits of going native at their own official residence.

"Native landscaping offers people who are interested in gardening a whole new set of beautiful plants to become familiar with," says Noel Gerson, an environmental consultant who, along with her partner George Gann, designed and supervised the vice-presidential plantings. "It creates habitat for birds and butterflies. It protects biodiversity at a local level. It's the ultimate way to 'act locally.'" On top of all that, once established, native plants usually require less maintenance.

Landscaping with native plants may even help local natural habitats. Not far from the vice president's house is Rock Creek Park, a green redoubt for wood warblers and white-tailed deer in the heart of the city. But one-third of Rock Creek plant species are nonnative or exotics, many of them suspected escapees from the 1,100 homes along the park's 55-mile border. "We're surrounded by yards," laments Bob Ford, the park natural resource manager who wages war against Oriental bittersweet, porcelain berry and other aggressive, nonnative plants that kill trees and otherwise claim park habitat. "Avoiding exotics is a benefit," he suggests.

One of your first steps in going native may be deciding just how native your plants need to be, says Craig Tufts, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ Program. To a purist, he explains, a plant isn't truly native unless it is from the local genotype of a species, thus from stock found within 100 or so miles of your garden. There is good reason to be this persnickety. Winterberry holly, for example, grows wild from Canada to Georgia. But a winterberry from your own corner of North America is likely to be better adapted to local climate and soils and more resistant to local insect pests.

However, a nonpurist can argue (rightly, says Tufts) that a native species of more distant origin, such as a plant you buy by mail from a nursery several states away, still offers more ecologically than an exotic shrub or flower that requires high maintenance and provides little value to wildlife.

Purist or pragmatist, try to ensure that your native plants have not been ripped off from nature: Some wildflower populations have been sharply reduced due to unethical collecting from the wild. At your nursery, ask if plants sold as natives are propagated specimens. A mature plant in a pot that is sprouting weeds and grasses may have been poached from habitat in the wild.

To learn about your region's native plant offerings, Tufts suggests, "visit botanical gardens and arboretums and go to a couple of meetings of the native plant group in your area." Native plant societies have sprouted up all across the country. If you have trouble finding such a group, inquire at a local garden club.

Some gardeners like to mix native species among more traditional garden plants. Others convert a part of their lawn to native plants only. "If you have an area that already has native vegetation," suggests Gerson, "identify what's there, pull out the exotic stuff and add to it by planting some new native species." You'll be creating your own ecological restoration project.

Obviously, where you live determines candidates for your native landscape. Gardeners in the arid Southwest, for example, might try native trees such as paloverde and desert willow, or a shrub like ocotillo (flowers of which are a boon to bats and hummingbirds). In South Florida, gardeners could start by planting a geiger tree (hummingbirds like its orange flowers) or a gumbo-limbo (its fruit appeals to vireos).

Part of the appeal of growing native plants, says Tufts, is the way they benefit colorful species of wildlife. Plant a papaw--a shrub or tree with large fruit shaped like kidney beans and tropical-looking leaves that turn yellow in fall--and you will provide food for larvae of zebra swallowtail butterflies. Papaws grow wild throughout much of the South, Midwest and East.

Likewise, planting turtlehead, a perennial wildflower with blossoms that resemble snapdragons, increases your odds of hosting Baltimore checkerspots, eastern butterflies seldom found far from their favorite larval food plant.

Landscaping with all-American plants that help all-American insects? Sounds like a backyard environmental policy that both Democrats and Republicans could undoubtedly agree upon.

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