I’m not a “joiner.” Clubs/groups usually have an agenda, a set of by-laws, and these often rule all others out. I think that narrows thinking, and I want to be free to consider all points before making a decision.

Take garden clubs; there are the hybrids vs. heirlooms, native vs. exotic vs. naturalized, all-natural vs. some chemical use … and on it goes. I’m not a tee-totaler on any of this. I feel there are good points to be made by each, and I want to glean from all of them.

So, what’s the difference between naturalized and native? Technically, if one goes back far enough, I suppose even plants considered native were newcomers and became naturalized. Naturalized plants have come from another region (which means they would be exotic, introduced, or alien). Once planted it must be able to grow, thrive, reproduce without human intervention. In other words, it has become “wild.” This can be good or bad. Native (indigenous) plants got that distinction by having been in a region for an extended period of time, and that period is also arbitrary, depending on who you talk to.

Some naturalized plants become invasive, displacing plants that are depended on for food, shelter, soil stability, etc. We buy/plant things we love and we’re happy when they self-propagate. What about when they begin to take over the garden or the forest? A good example is the “burning bush” which has been planted in landscape for generations.

People enjoy the bright red fall foliage, giving no thought to how it’s readily self-seeding in the forests, crowding out less aggressive, needed natives (indigenous). Should we get rid of all plants that have naturalized? See if you recognize any of these naturalized plants: black-eyed Susan, blue flag, bugleweed, foxglove, hens-n-chicks, Lenten rose, lily-of-the-valley, Oriental poppy, wild violet, yellow flag.

How about autumn clematis, daffodils, tulips, snowdrops, bluebells, scilla, allium? Complicated isn’t it? I’ve only scratched the surface. Even wildflowers; some are exotic, some are invasive.

Daylilies are alien and, in some cases, are considered invasive. Daylilies have been used for a multitude of things through the ages, including food and medicine. Today they’re sometimes used to hold a hillside in place, and will often grow where no other plant will. Foxglove (very toxic and a possible invasive), forsythia (invasive), peonies, and even many beloved state flowers are non-native. The list of trees and shrubs you might consider native might surprise you.

Like so many other categories that humans tend to make, there are exceptions. Arguments are started over distinctions made by certain groups. Maybe the question should be, how well does this non-native blend with/interact with what has long been considered native? What’s the impact on the environment it grows in? Does it push everyone else out of the picture and destroy other life-forms in the process?

I have non-natives I’ve planted and they do well for me. I’ve recommended them to others and I’ll continue to do so. Don’t be ashamed of your non-natives, if they’re doing no harm. If they’re too aggressive, keep them in check. If you want to replace some of them with native plants, do it because you want to, not because of what someone thinks.

Making/keeping a garden space is about enjoyment and satisfaction in what you see, or harvest, or share. Natives are wonderful but so are the alternatives. An example of a native tree which can be harmful to its environment is black walnut…and several other nut trees. They produce a chemical that is toxic to most vegetation, making it unwise to plant things under it, or to plant one close to other desirable plants. The “mimosa” is listed as a very invasive species yet my husband loves them, and we have one on our place.

Don’t get overly concerned about semantics, ideologies, and fixed perspectives on plants you enjoy — or anything else, for that matter. Do be aware of how the choices you make will affect the immediate environment and surrounding flora and fauna in the future. We’re all responsible for the choices we make and how they impact our world.

In the end, when humans disappear, nature and all her “kids” will reclaim the space, erasing all semblance of human guidance.

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to velokigate@yahoo.com.