Six on Saturday: Preference and Prejudice

Have you ever thought much about why we prefer one plant to another?  We elevate some, like Narcissus, Iris, roses and Camellias to almost cult status.  There are whole international societies of folks who love and grow these plants.  I count myself among those who love and grow them, but don’t have the membership cards in my wallet. 

I did join the Hardy Fern Foundation several years ago to learn more about growing and propagating ferns. It is valuable enough for me to keep renewing that membership each year.  I also joined the Virginia Native Plant Society, and look forward to reading their newsletters and emails, because I learn so much from them.

When choosing plants, we each have our preferences.  Some of us search out certain colors, textures, fragrances and forms.  I want flowers blooming every day of the year and so make sure to plant for winter and early spring flowers.  But I have favorite plants for every season of the year.  Blue and purple flowers always grab my attention.  Some gardeners focus on edible plants, others on shrubs and their lawn. 

There is a growing body of gardeners digging healthy plants out of their landscape to replace them with native plants.  Lately, it has become fashionable, at least in the US, to plant things that bugs will eat.  We are concerned about host plants to feed various larvae and flowers to support the ‘pollinators.’  I do these things and go a step further, to plant perennials and shrubs that provide berries and seeds for the birds.

My discomfort begins when someone declares a plant ‘bad,’ or ‘a pest.’  There are some gardeners who want to sort the plant kingdom into what is acceptable to grow and what is not.  There are voices instructing us to rip out and dispose of those plants deemed objectionable and ‘invasive.’  And this is where conflicts and controversy can arise.

I was solicited to contribute plants to a plant sale recently but told that absolutely no ‘invasive’ plants could be accepted.  Then I was provided with multiple lists of unacceptable plants.  We don’t even have one common list of the ‘invasives’?  Really?

Evergreen Vinca minor feeds native bees and other early pollinating insects in early spring. It is considered ‘invasive’ by many groups.

Some people want to divide the world up into piles of what is acceptable and what is not.  We do it all the time with animals, plants, foods, entertainers, books, and even the people we encounter.  I’ve never found this an easy thing to do where plants are concerned (or with much else, except foods, perhaps.)  I find some redeeming quality in almost any plant, even if only that it produces some oxygen and clears the air.

Every plant has a purpose and a function beyond its simple appearance.  Plants cover the ground, stop erosion, sequester carbon, feed wildlife, create and improve soil, feed us, provide medicine, provide cover and habitat, give shade, and help recycle water.  Whether we label them an ornamental, a weed, a crop, an herb, or an invasive is a human perspective and separate from how they interact with their environment.

Fiddleheads continue to emerge this week as I slowly prune away the old fronds left from last year.

When I took a university economics class last century, we learned about ‘opportunity costs’ and ‘cost-benefit analysis.’  Every plant you grow costs you the opportunity to grow something else, so we try to choose wisely and make the most of the space and resources available for gardening.  Likewise, we must consider what it costs us to grow something v. the benefits it provides. 

I love roses, but the costs of growing them well grew too high, and I stopped planting any more after I made the decision to abstain from spraying insecticides and fungicides in our yard.  If it is impossible to grow them well, why provide that extra attraction to the deer?  When the costs in resources and labor to maintain a plant outweigh its benefits, we’re left with the choice to let it go.

Some plants, like the Akebia and honeysuckle vines I’m still wrangling, cost other plants their very lives by choking them and shading them.  Their roots spread out from every node that touches soil to soak up the moisture and minerals.  I must cut out the vines to preserve the heritage Hydrangeas and Azaleas I want to enjoy.  And perhaps that is the basic conundrum of plants considered ‘invasive.’  If one plant is destroying another, we’re left with a choice to favor one or the other, or let the plants compete on their own terms.

We have been admiring the beautiful pear trees growing all along the highway through our area.  They are absolutely stunning in the early spring when most of the surrounding trees remain bare.  They lift our spirits with their promises of the season to come.  Yet, these Asian ‘Bradford’ pears, Pyrus calleryana, are considered invasive.  The reproduce too freely, grow very quickly, and over compete with more ‘desirable’ native trees.  Birds eat their fruits in late autumn and spread the seeds around generously.  And spring would be much drabber and grayer if someone went and cut them all down.

So many beautiful shrubs and trees that I’ve enjoyed all my life are now considered ‘invasive,’ and have made it to the ‘Bad Plant’ list.  Ditto for perennials like Arum, Ajuga, ivy and Vinca minor.  (Bees have been feeding steadily from those tiny blue Vinca flowers all week.) Their main faults are their adaptability, their persistence, and their ability to compete.  Often these plants are more beautiful and long lasting than the ‘native’ plants they out compete.  And most are functional.  That is why they were planted widely before their reputations went south.

Asian Magnolia liliiflora bloomed this week

We all compete for our space and resources, don’t we?  Humankind competes effectively to claim real estate once devoted to forests, jungles and prairies.  We simply out compete other living creatures with our persistence and our technology.  Have you seen the statistics lately of how many plant and animals have become endangered or extinct over the last 50 years?  What does it say about us when we happily bulldoze a forest to build a subdivision, and then criticize the new neighbors for what they choose to plant?  Invasive species?  Let’s have a conversation about that!

These thoughts run through my mind as I prune and thin my garden beds this spring.  I cast a side-eye at the emerging Solidago, an enthusiastic native that won’t bloom until fall, and consider digging out clumps to plant more pleasing perennials in its place.  I admire the tiny flowers of Vinca, and look at how it over-runs everything where it is allowed to grow in the perennial beds.  I see the seedling Rose of Sharon shrubs growing up through the Solidago, and wonder whether to let them grow and bloom or dig them out.  It is all about the editing, isn’t it?

Well, I have made up my mind to stop trying to destroy the autumn olive shrubs that have valiantly returned again after I cut them to the ground two years ago.  They are evergreen, fragrant in the spring, and produce drupes beloved by the birds.  All the rage in the 80s, they made it to the ‘Invasive’ list some years ago.  I tried to follow suit with my horticultural comrades and dutifully destroy these ‘invasive’ shrubs in my yard.  Now, I’ve reconsidered the choice to follow along with sorting the plants in my yard into right and wrong, good and bad, hated and loved.  My heart is large enough to love them all… almost. 

Our pear tree bears lovely gold pears… if the squirrels don’t get them first.

I wonder sometimes about the individuals who sort out certain plants as ‘invasive’ while tolerating other with similar habits.  I look at the uncounted seedlings popping up all around our Hellebores.  These beautiful perennials grow into thick, evergreen mats of dark green leaves enlivened each winter with nectar rich, long lasting flowers.  I consider European Iris, that spread and spread on their productive rhizomes and grow on generation to generation in old gardens.  A small clump of Alliums planted a decade ago has seeded itself into a ‘matrix’ plant across most of one part of our garden, emerging each spring right through the Vinca.  When they bloom white and lush in August, the butterflies love their nectar. These all persist, tolerate our weather, reproduce freely, and may ‘escape cultivation.’  Yet they are not sorted out as naughty plants, yet-

I’m looking at the function of our garden plants as well as their beauty these days, and I really love those species that mostly look after themselves.  Like the Narcissus, the Vinca, the Arum, and the autumn olive.

This Camellia is blooming for the first time since I planted it out here several years ago, and I had forgotten its form and color until this flower opened on Thursday. I added this photo back in as an ‘extra’ in honor of the Camellia show at RHS Rosemoor today that our host, Jim, is attending. The bare sticks in back and to the left are what is left of a pruned native beautyberry.
With appreciation to Jim Stephens of Garden Ruminations, who hosts Six on Saturday each week.

You might enjoy my new series of posts, Plants I Love That Deer Ignore.

Visit Illuminations Each Day for a daily garden photo and a quotation



  1. One of the advantages of living or working within urban areas is that we can get away with a lot more invasive plants. They have no place to escape to. Aggressive plants are more of a concern than invasive plants.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with much of what you have written. I was recently ‘ghosted ‘ from a volunteer position for suggesting that diversity in planting is just as important as trendy native planting. After all, who decides how far back to go, or how climate change is affecting appropriate geographic distribution of plants.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so very sorry to hear that. It is just another hot topic that seems to divide us these days when we should all be on the same team. I just resigned in December from a volunteer position I’ve held since 2018, and this was one of the several issues that led to my decision. There are so many factors in play in making good decisions for planting, especially when designing public garden spaces for use year round. I like to think of our full selection of plants as ‘native to planet Earth.’ How parochial do we really need to be when it comes to the joy of gardening? Take care, and thank you for sharing your experience.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Eliza! I started tackling the leaves this past week and have them raked into a pathway for S. to mulch with the lawnmower. I bought 2 more flats of plants yesterday. Once this cold spell passes, I’ll be out planting and loving an excuse to be out among the flowers!

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  3. Not so very long ago wild flowers were something you found in the countryside. The widespread use of glyphosate has all but wiped them out from farms here. Field after field with not a single flower to be seen. All the criticism of it as a chemical has been around its possible carcinogenicity to humans, diverting attention from the far greater damage it has been doing to the environment. No till cultivation has created another big niche/market for it. I assume the advocates of growing only native plants in our gardens have to eat and that their food comes from farmland. Gardeners are an easy bunch to get feeling guilty, their gardens are not their livelihood. The countryside used to be a complex, diverse, large scale ecosystem with farming as part of it. It isn’t that any longer. Recreating that ecosystem in small gardens in urban areas is impossible and tiny pockets of wild species isolated from other populations seem to me unlikely to be much use.
    And yes, I’m rationalising the way I choose to garden, as we all rationalise the way we live the rest of our lives and I don’t eat meat and I grow my own veg and I’ve stopped flying and I don’t ever set out to make people feel guilty about what they do. It wouldn’t work and it’s probably too late anyway.
    And when the human race has wiped 90% of plant species off the face of the earth, I’m betting Camellias will be in the 10% left.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim, there is so much to unpack in your comments. Thank you for this very thoughtful response. I’ve been thinking about it before getting back to you.

      First, it is so disheartening to hear that industrial farmers are using glyphosate to kill off so much of the native vegetation in much of the country- particularly the wildflowers. The conversation on this side of the pond has evolved to the environmental impacts of herbicides, probably more so than the health impacts. I was so frustrated to hear a professor from Va Tech speak to our Master Gardener class in 2018 about lawn maintenance, and describe various ways to apply herbicides. New MGs are trained every year to go out into the community and use these vary harmful chemicals for aesthetics in home landscapes- not even to increase food production! And yes, everyone has to eat, but the truth is all of those chemicals in our food does much harm, too. I am glad you are able to grow much of your own food. I miss the ability to do that on this property and so we are left to buy it all but a few herbs. However, we also abstain from meat and chose to go full vegan several years ago.

      The ability of native plants to make a difference in a small pocket is still hotly debated over here. Dr. Doug Tallamy has a project called “Homegrown National Park.” Here is an article I wrote about a year ago on the movement:
      One thing that stuck with me from my training were comments made by a local landscape designer, also a friend, who was trying to help us understand the difference between a garden and a landscape. He kept stressing that gardens are primarily for people. They are artificial, managed areas where people choose what plants fulfill their needs and make them happy. We are a part of nature, not apart from it. How we garden is every bit as natural as how a beaver makes a dam, or a bird builds its nest. So cudos for your lovely garden, the amazing Camellias your grow, and your deep generosity in sharing it all with us each week. Take care, and I hope you tasted success at the show yesterday.


      • It’s complicated and there are no easy answers and no absolutes in terms of right and wrong. The thought I keep coming back to is that the living world divides into heterotrophs and autotrophs and while the heterotrophs are entirely dependent on the autotrophs, the autotrophs dependence on heterotrophs is very partial. It is plants that created the conditions on which animals depend. It is plants that harvest the sun’s energy to fuel virtually all life on earth. So often the best justification people can come up with for preserving habitats is the service they provide for animals, any animals. Some plants need some insects. For the rest, the plants would be better off without us.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is an interesting perspective, Jim, and well expressed. I am also interested in preserving habitats to learn from them- to better understand the complex inter-relationships between plants, animals, insects, fungi, and the soil. It is always instructive to understand how and why plants and other creatures group themselves together in communities without human intervention. There is some interesting writing out there suggesting that plants have domesticated humans, in some sense, to spread them around, cultivate and perhaps even help pollinate them. We’re speaking of crops again primarily, I’m afraid. The conversation in N. America is delving into how much indigenous cultures spread and cultivated particular plants before Europeans wrote down the history. But it was generally from the point of view of valuing and nurturing the plants, not destroying the ecosystems. I still am entertaining the idea that the Camellias will outlast us all.


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