Inquirer Editorial: Toward greater garden variety

An ostrich fern .
An ostrich fern . (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: July 27, 2013

Echoing the "eat local" movement, a "plant local" movement has sprouted in the Philadelphia region in recent years. Following the lead of Lower Makefield, Schuylkill and Warrington Townships have passed ordinances requiring new commercial and residential developments to use native plants exclusively in their landscaping. While this horticultural nativism has some ecological merit, such ordinances are not always practical.

Their proponents, such as Jim Bray, chairman of the Lower Makefield Environmental Advisory Council, point out that native plants use fewer resources and enjoy a higher survival rate. Native plants also provide better food and shelter for native insects and birds. Recent outbreaks of invasive species, such as the Chinese native Callery pear in Fairmount Park, have bolstered the nativists' case.

However, while planting local species such as oakleaf hydrangea and ostrich fern may feel patriotic and green, Morris Arboretum director Paul Meyer notes that in an urban environment, most native plants simply cannot survive. When a native dogwood struggled to adapt to the city, Rutgers University scientists hybridized it with an Asian dogwood to create the locally thriving Rutgers dogwood.

In addition, many foreign species have become part of our environment, like the blossoming Japanese cherry trees at Fairmount Park. Landscape architect Alice Doering, who designed a native-plant garden in Fairmount Park with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, said that using native plants exclusively is difficult and restricting.

Moreover, while some affluent suburbs may have the time and resources to legislate landscaping, most towns probably have other priorities.

Rather than laws and mandates, the cause of native plants can be furthered more effectively by a better-informed public. Lawn grasses are largely nonnative, and they cover more than 90 percent of the suburban planting space in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, according to research by Douglas Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Morris Arboretum, and Bartram's Garden all provide programs on native plants that can help homeowners convert ecologically harmful, labor-intensive, monoculture lawns into more diverse gardens and meadows where local and foreign plants coexist.

Education about native plants can do more than xenophobic landscaping laws to help our flora flourish. Like the region's cosmopolitan population, plants from the four corners of the globe contribute to the rich fabric of the Philadelphia area.

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