Tuesday, September 10, 2013

To Butterfly Bush or to Not Butterfly Bush (Or to Native or Not to Native)

No other plant seems to get people's engines revving more than butterfly bush. I mean heated arguments -- I've been in my fair share. Is it invasive or not? Well, Oregon doesn't let it into the state, and the USDA says it's naturalized on both coasts, and even in parts of eastern Kansas.

But that's not the core issue.

Does it support lots of insects by providing good nectar? If one person sees one monarch nectarting on it one day, it's always assumed to be a good plant to help butterflies. Whenever I say -- and I am not lying to prove a point -- that my native prairie perennials see 50x the insect action than butterfly bush, I hear "I have plenty of butterflies on mine." Maybe you do. Maybe you don't. Doesn't really matter. Butterflies are one kind of insect, and I have NEVER seen a soldier beetle, or any beetle, or fly or wasp, on butterfly bush (let alone a caterpillar munching on its leaves). A few bumblebees, yes, and some hummingbird moth species. The point is when my prairie clover, coneflowers, mountain mint, rudbeckia, culver's root, ironweed, jow pye weed, milkweed, goldenrod, aster, viburnum, ninebark, serviceberry, baptisia, pasque flower, boneset, and countless other natives are in bloom, they are COVERED in a DIVERSE set of insect species. I wave my hand over them and a literal buzzing cloud lifts up like steam then settles like snow. I can't do that on butterfly bush.

But that's not the core issue.

White-lines sphinx moth on New England aster
I don't give a rip about supporting just one type of insect, since songbird chicks eat a 100% diet of insects, as do most adult songbirds (in decline due to habitat loss). 1 in 3 bites of food we humans take began with the act of a pollinating insect, not just a pollinating butterfly.

Still, not the core issue.

Here's where I get lambasted the most -- plant choices in our landscapes are moral choices. Just like shopping at a local business is a moral choice, going to a farmer's market, consolidating trips in a car, not using plastic bottles, not slamming a door on someone's face, not driving drunk, not using racial slurs, not beating your spouse, not shooting prairie dogs for entertainment.

IDK on Agastache foeniculum
This is the core issue:

Using plants native to your locale is a moral and ethical choice.

This statement insinuates that if you have a hosta I think you're an immoral, self-centered, planet-degrading a-hole. I wouldn't go that far, but we're on that sliding scale, I must admit. Here in eastern Nebraska 99% of the tallgrass prairie is gone, replaced my publically-subsidized monocultures that fatten cattle in terrible feedlots, poison our food supply, and create a bridge fuel (ethanol) which is like plugging a leak in the boat by adding food dye to the water. What does the loss of prairie say about who we are and what we value?

The preservation of our world is no matter to take lightly. When you plant with natives you are standing up against corporations that rape and poison this planet for profit, that own our government, and you're standing up against social, racial, and gender inequality. I know that seems like a leap, but it's all related, it all comes from the same root of choices we make every day in our hearts and minds. (I always wonder why the term is "mother nature," as if that gender gives us more inherent rights over it, that is then passive and submissive, simply a backup support to something or someone more important.)

If wanting to ensure a livable future for subsequent generations labels me as a native plant purist, then get that branding iron out of the fire -- here's my bare rump.

It's easy to dismiss issues that make us uncomfortable, that highlight our complicity in ecological harm. It hurts. It should hurt. But I'm not asking for you to feel guilty or ashamed -- I'm asking you to take stock of what you know and see and experience, and reflect on what's really going on beneath the shiny surface fed to us in our daily lives. What do you believe in? Should you? I ask this of my college students all the time. I'm asking you, too.

E. altissimum, Rudbeckia, A. azureus
You are certainly free to plant whatever you want, just as you are free (in America, theoretically) to practice whatever religion you want, eat what you want, love what you want, hate what you want. But we innately know where the moral lines are in our unique existence. I don't believe that any gardener can be a gardener without understanding and feeling the life our plants give, the wild systems at play, our hand for better or worse in the natural world, and not garden selflessly. If we garden selflessly, suddenly we get FAR more in and from the garden than we ever could have imagined. That selfless gardening begins with native plants and local ecosystems.

For more on the butterfly bush vs. native plants debate:

-- The North American Butterfly Association did a feisty spread
-- This ecologist goes deeper than I did above, so you might not like him
-- And I did a post suggesting alternative plants here
-- Maybe if I make you cry about a swallowtail I helped, you'll see where I'm coming from better.

74 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can you compare the morality of planting non -natives to a violent act. Your comment about when " you plant with natives you are standing up against corporations that rape and poison this planet for profit..." makes little sense.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anonymous--Really? How many native plants do you see for sale at Home Depot compared to a farmer's market or a small local nursery? In addition, native plants, when properly sited, don't really need pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizer, so there goes a whole industry that adds to CO2 emissions and creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And as far as ecosystem restoration, you know like preserving prairie, that's pretty much saying to something to big ag and the fossil fuel industry that supports it. Does that help you see what I'm saying?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Raping the land. How similar / dis-similar is to raping another person? I know that sounds crass at first, but don't they come from the same root? Our sense of value, how we see something other than ourselves, how we deal with our own complex emotions, how we deal with what's happened to us in our own lives? Our culture values excess and surface glitter. Our culture values instant gratification. Our culture values manifest destiny at any cost. Not good.

Anonymous said...

I'll go ahead and plant my hostas, lantanas, petunias, daisies. You now wave the moral aspect of gardening just to defend your own narrow mindedness. And what really is a native plant? And the bees that pollinate the fruits and veggies you eat are not natives. I use some native plants, but also use ornamentals. Whether they are native or ornamental at least they are taking in CO2 and giving off O , and I am doing my small part in lessening CO2 and global warming.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--Hey, go for it, it's your right as a free human to do whatever you want. I don't know, I think what I'm saying is pretty gosh darn revolutionary, and asking us to expand how we see, think, and feel on multiple levels -- we just aren't used to doing it. Ok, I'll define native -- that which was here before Europeans ripped it up. And if you want to talk about taking in CO2, the Great Plains grassland used to as effective at it as the Amazon rainforest. Where's that grassland now? Ripped up. By us. Seems suicidal.

Anonymous said...

Why Europeans? What about Native Americans or their ancestors. I would think native would mean it was here before any humans were here and these plants evolved here.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Because Europeans did the most damage, tearing down forests, and AGAIN ripping up 99% of the tallgrass prairie. If that's ok with you, ok then. I guess if you want to be difficult, you can say why not the Pleistocene. Why not when two planets collided and created our moon. The whole point of my argument is that we ERADICATED ENTIRE ECOSYSTEMS in the course of a few centuries, and in the case of the tallgrass, a few decades or less. Doesn't that bother you?

Gail Spratley said...

There are many sides to the native plant gardening issue. One that is sometimes overlooked is that our country is on the brink of a severe freshwater deficiency, in some places already a crisis situation. There will come a day when green grass lawns will be a thing of the past, because we won't have the water they need. Where do native plants come into this? They are specialists to the native environments and don't have the water requirements that lawns and nonnative gardens have.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Gail--Yup, excellent point / addendum to all this. Of course, we won't change until we absolutely have to. Sure see that with issues of race and class, don't we? Of course, running out of resources will only exacerbate and refresh old hatreds of race and class.

stone said...

There are a lot of people posting negatives about buddleia....
Your article is the most well developed of any I've read to date.
Damn fine job!

In my area... in an unwatered garden, buddleia tends not to reproduce, and has a short life span... due to the usual droughtiness of middle Georgia, and the root-knot nematodes... but in an irrigated yard... seedlings... everywhere.

It's not hard to imagine what they would do in an area that got good rain.

I'd rather grow vitex, (another exotic)... it gets Manduca rustica caterpillars, and the birds eat the seeds... plus, the hummingbirds visit, butterflies, various other critters...

Anonymous said...

Much of the Pliocene mega fauna was probably killed off by the ancestors of the Native Americans. Why just blame Europeans.

Anonymous said...

What does race and class have to do with native plants? Please provide RATIONAL explanation.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--Hey, I gave you as "rational" as I know how, if you don't like it go away. Better yet, do some reading if you care enough about the topic to keep coming back here: The Nature of Home by Greta Gaard, Ill Nature by Joy Williams, most anything by E.O. Wilson and Lawrence Buell. And why not give us your name?

Again, race and class are connect to native plants because we treat the planet how we treat each other -- I'm not the only non "rational" person to think this. LOTS of books on it. If I see no value in a Latino I see no value in my environment. If I believe as a white male I'm better than a black woman who lives on food stamps, than I'll think I'm better than the world which feeds me and gives me clean air and water. If you don't get this, please read the above books, then come back here and let's talk without capped words.

trey said...

What you are saying is everything is a moral choice. Deciding to get out of bed is a moral choice. Wouldn't it be better if some people chose not to get of of bed this morning? I hope you do not drive a car. What a morally repugnant act that is.

Man is a part of nature, not separate from it. The planting of a flower, native or not, is a act of nature. Who decides what is moral, and what is not? You?

I am already hearing from younger gardeners feeling "guilty" about growing anything but food crops. How sad people can't even plant a flower, native or not, without a guilt trip.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Trey -- I guess we should all plant purple loosestrife and buckthorn and just say "ah heck, we're part of nature." Why not spray chemicals over inner cities to test what happens to the people (I think that was in Detroit in the 50s or 60s, can't remember which city).

And you're right, driving a GAS car is terrible -- we are at the technological point where we almost don't need them. If we subsidized alternative energy like we subsidize oil, we wouldn't need oil, we've be living in the golden age of clean energy. But oil companies own our government.

Whose to say that we shouldn't do better and strive for more? Whose to say we shouldn't hope and dream for a life connected to this planet and not treating it, and each other, like self-centered jerks? (I think MLK did.) You know where the moral line is, you know what's right and wrong, I know you do.

But if we ARE a part of nature, I can only assume that the planet will soon cull our numbers once it can no longer support us -- the irony is, it could support us a heckuva lot longer if we were smarter.... solar, wind, not wasting so much food by transporting it long distances, not overfishing, overlogging, etc. But we're a part of nature, so use it or lose! First come first serve, who cares about the future generations.

Benjamin Vogt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin Vogt said...

I'm an ecofeminist in a lot of ways, and this is where many of the above ideas come from -- the ecofeminist school of thought.

Anonymous said...

This is a different Anonymous. Your rantings have the flavor of someone who has gone way off the deep end into irrational, unstable and self-unaware idiocy. I pray that you might find some mental health, and that your family will have support. This used to be an interesting blog, now it is a nightmare.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon2 -- See ya later!

Layanee said...

Oh Benjamin...very thought provoking but a moral issue? I do not agree but I do respect your right to think what you will and plant what you want. If our forefathers had only planted natives our world here in North America would be void of many wonderful fruits, vegetables and ornamentals. Yes, there are problems with some introduced genus and species. What we have gained may be greater than the problems created. Let's work together to solve the problems and not increase divisiveness with blanket statements and judgements. That said, you have a beautiful garden and I hope it continues to grow and flourish.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Layanee--You know I like you, and I don't want to offend you or irk you, etc. Our forefathers destroyed the ecology here--isn't that a problem? It's not that if they planted only natives, they planted so much non native and ripped up the native. We still do it (come out here to the prairie, it's insane!). Isn't that a problem? Don't you see the moral imperative there? It's like dismissing genocide to me (plant, animal, whatever). I don't see exotic ornamentals as a gain, because I see them as a diversion -- we, as European immigrants, never learned the native plants and ecosystems, we just came in and did what we did elsewhere. We never learned the plants, the medicines, the animals, how things worked. One can see this in yeoman farmers, plowing up prairie, not knowing about crop rotation or rainfall patterns or the three sisters. This is the moral and ethical dilemma I see -- does that make sense? We don't even now understand how ecosystems here in North America work because we turn a blind eye to them and do whatever we want, eradicating them, as if there are no worries or consequences. Does that make sense? I don't see this as increasing devisiveness, I see it as thinking about landscapes in a deeper, local level that too many folks don't do. Drive through any suburban neighborhood, any new office park, etc. I think that's about as clear as I can make it. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I'm a native plant proponent. Have tons of them...trees, shrubs, plants, vines, ground covers. But in certain areas around the property the ground really isn't conducive to any native plant I've tried. It does support hostas though and they look great. How on earth is that immoral? Totally agree we need to continue to plant native. Totally disagree we have to stop planting daylilies and hostas. You really are in danger of losing a lot of your friends because your wording is so all or nothing, so isolating, so blaming, so holier than thou. Get a grip Benjamin.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--I'm very confused and frustrated by the backlash I'm getting; I do appreciate you honesty and do want to hear from everyone. :) Still, I feel like people aren't getting what I'm saying. Anon (who are you?), I'm thrilled you use natives, I am not saying to you that I hate you because you have hostas. I'm saying so many people have mostly or just hostas, or plants like them (exotics), and I see an ecological problem with that which reflects how we view the world as something wrong, a place that needs to be remade in our image. The world is not wrong, only how we treat it and by extension each other. We see this with tearing down forests, overfishing, and ripping up prairie -- we don't care to understand the land that sustains us, we rush to "improve it," and in those actions we lose a bit of our soul and creative potential. We lose our fuller humanity. I think burning a rainforest is equivalent to racism and sexism because it negates other lives, and serves the purpose of one dictatorial group who needs and worth are assumed to be better than another's.

Too many gardeners don't know about local ecology, and when they don't, how can they ever hope to really be gardeners? To pass on a healthy planet full of, oh, pollinating insects that give us 1/3 of our food? We've seen the monarch losses this year, how can we not connect that loss with native landscape loss? Then, how can we not connect it to our actions?

I can't see gardening as a hobby any more, just like the local food movement isn't just about growing veg -- there's something much deeper, more resonate, more ethical in using natives that says something about who we are and what we value. Can you see the relation? Can you see what I'm going for? I don't know what else to do or how else to say what I mean. I appreciate the comments and the open debate here, and hope we can continue it. Maybe you'd like to read my post from today, 9/13, and this will sort of illustrate what I'm saying here. I hope.

Jennifer said...

The problem with continuing to use Hostas, crown vetch, daylillies is that it perpetuates the definition of a how a landscape should look. When potential clients drive by countless landscapes and this is all they see, they think they too have to plant these plants to fit in, as most people don't want to step on toes. It is our mission as native landscapers to use native plants...little by little...to educate our clients that it's okay to like these plants...these plants are "normal" landscaping choices, they attract birds and butterflies...you get the picture. We have to drive the change from a sterile hosta world. I have never met a soil or condition that could harbor a native plant choice. never. There is always a native plant that could work in any given situation. The difficult part is deciding which one. That is our role as the native landscaper..making these choices for our clients...

Anonymous said...

I meant to say...there has never been a soil or light or moisture condition in a landscape the couldn't harbor a native plant (not could).

Benjamin Vogt said...

Jennifer -- I agree, both that it's a landscaper's job to help make those choices, and that there is always a native plant option. If there was no option, our planet would be devoid of flora. I've had two consults this week and the eyes light up when I say, in response to a problem area the client is frustrated by, hey, native plants x y z shold work great for you there, AND they'll attract more birds or butterflies. That's where we get them -- birds and butterflies. And if E.O. Wilson is right saying 3,000 species go extinct every year, it seems like a clear cut moral imperative since we are driving climate change. Right? :)

Jennifer said...

Right. It's just hard for folks to change. Even as a native landscaper, I get into ruts that I have to pull myself out of....then I look through a native plant catalog and feel a new creative pulse to try different species. When you're running a business, it's easy and efficient to turn to things that you know and that you don't have to convince your client of the benefits...I have to remind myself before every appointment what my life's mission is..clients are actually pretty easy to convince. You just keep ranting Benjamin...I think most of us agree with you.

Mary Kay Scott said...

Very thought-provoking post Benjamin -- you've certainly got me thinking. I'm from the camp that things everything is potentially a moral issue -- yes, even getting out of bed in the morning can be a moral issue -- it just depends on what's at stake. So absolutely what you choose to plant in your garden can be a moral issue.


The truth is we all make better and worse moral decisions all day every day, on a spectrum of bigger/smaller moral issues. You (and increasingly me) put ecological issues higher on the moral spectrum of what counts as important than others. And we feel compelled to persuade others to join us. The best we can do is offer rational arguments for the importance of the moral issue at hand (and for our position on said issue), and hope that some folks will be convinced.


Unfortunately, many people see the word "moral" as an indicator that you are about to tell them (a) what to do and/or (b) that they are bad people, hence the strong negative reactions you've gotten here. But don't stop doing what you're doing -- true moral discourse absolutely requires the input of diverse points of view, and a forum in which to put them! Thank you :)

Benjamin Vogt said...

MKS -- Yes, "moral" is a strong word, but man it turns on the conversation. I've more than doubled my daily hits here. But I don't think it's too strong of a word -- it is a moral choice, and choosing plants is indicative of other moral choices we make every day, just as the monarch butterfly population loss is indicative of larger losses and environmental change. If the word calls out people, revs them up, then I think it's the right choice. So thank you for calling attention to it and the problem is creates. :) "All truth goes through three steps. First, it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and finally it is accepted as self-evident." -- Arthur Schopenhauer

Tara Lee said...

Benjamin - thank you for your post! I agree 100%. I started my educational journey with Douglas Tallamy's great book, "Bringing Nature Home" and continued with the Master Gardener Program here in COnnecticut. Once educated, planting natives is the only logical thing to do.

Mary Kay Scott said...

If only moral "truths" worked the same way! (Well, at least *my* moral truths-haha.) But we should be able to get close to that. After all, we're making some headway in getting people to give up plastic bags. Surely we can get them to give up buddleia. Ooh! Perhaps an "invasive" tax...

Diana Studer said...

I'm with you. Our garden is mostly indigenous, and getting steadily more so year by year. I aim to turn the False Bay garden to fynbos, plant OUT by plant IN.

BTW I accept Anonymous comments on my blog, because people sometimes battle to leave comments, but I expect Anonymous to say 'this is Sally'.

How odd that ALL your nay-sayers are not willing to put their opinions with their names. Not much conviction, just letting off 'harmless' steam?

Layanee said...

Sorry for the late reply. You know how busy life is. There is always room for discussion and you will not irk me with your opinion. I welcome hearing it. I know you feel the same about other opinions. I think that it is important to address new landscapes with a view toward sustainability and 'right plant, right place'. We will agree on that point. As for our forefathers, they were trying to survive in a new and wild world with the tools they brought with them which included their knowledge of familiar plants. I am sure many did try and learn about the native plant which were here which could benefit them. Many of our native plants were exported to other countries as unique and valued. There was no malice in plant introductions.
If morality is based on 'right conduct' then who draws that conduct line? I would still dispute the moral issue but I do agree that more thoughtful attention to landscape plantings becomes more of a necessity as open space disappears. Perhaps your somewhat radical view has sparked much needed thought but I do believe that one catches more flies with honey.

Rebecca T. said...

Maybe one catches more flies with honey, but sometimes one has to stand up and be "radical" in order to create change (or at least get folks talking). The honey hasn't worked.

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Anonymous said...

Benjamin, this is a FABULOUS article that speaks the truth!!
It is a moral choice, and there are many selfish people who will never get it!
I plant for the local wildlife and it's the most rewarding experience! I started out with ornamental plants because at that time I was uneducated about the beauty & value of native plants. The garden was a dead zone. Now, it's filled with native plants & life! Monarch cats are born into butterflies, bees fill the yard & I get the occasional hummingbird. Native plants are far more beautiful than any ornamental plant. There are some people that will always be ignorant & will never get it! Case in point, the ignorant remarks they left commenting on your post. They are unteachable selfish fools, and their posts flaunt their extreme ignorance.

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