STOP Using the Term "Native Plant", Unless You Really Mean It!
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
As the continued drought heavily impacts the State of California's views on water and forces people to change their perspectives on acceptable landscape practices, an interesting societal trend has emerged. This trend is a focus on the new buzz word term, "native plant," that is finding its way into landscape vernacular and driving many decisions. Wherever landscapes and drought are discussed or written about, from city planning documents to neighborhood gardening associations, the words "native plant" are being used to describe the most responsible plants with which to replace the State's innumerable water guzzling landscapes. Well, STOP using the term "native plant" unless you really intend to use a plant that is technically native. The intent of this article is to clear up why the use of "native plant" is, frankly, incorrect. In reality, most people don't really mean it when they say it! This argument will be made through a discussion of three distinct topics: native plants, drought tolerant plants, and low water use plants.
To begin, it should be pointed out that, this article is not anti-native plant. There is nothing wrong with correctly choosing and using native plants as advertised by many nurseries. There are many cases in which native plants are not only appropriate, but are also the preferred plant palette to use. They are not, however, fix-all plants that can be used in any situation and for all projects. They are most often used for restoration projects and for projects in which the intent is to mimic natural plant communities and ecosystems. The largest issue at hand is the trend to use the term "native plant" as a blanket term, intended to describe plants that use less water and are better for the environment. There are several glaring issues with the use of the term in this fashion:
Wild plant communities in California have changed dramatically throughout history. So, when "native plant" is used, which time frame in history is to be considered as native? Does this mean that only plants dating back to predevelopment conditions are allowed? Is there a more recent time period in history that is acceptable? Perhaps a time period after other "naturalized" plants were introduced but which grow readily in nature? Unfortunately in most cases the ideological return to an all native pre-development plant community is entirely unfeasible and unattainable.
The State of California has an extremely wide range of climate zones from Sunset's 1A Zone to Zone 24. Within these climate zones are dozens of specific plant communities that cannot thrive or exist in any other climate zone. The naturalized plants that grow in these zones are plant communities that cannot just be used in any location, on any project, or in any microclimate despite its "California Native" label. In other words, what may be natural in one area of the State is not necessarily natural to another part of the State.
Many natural plants are genetically programmed to thrive during wet months and go dormant during the drier months of the year. Is this the aesthetic that is desired? Maybe or maybe not.
Many natural plants are high water users, growing in and around rivers, waterways and wetlands. If the intent is to save water, then these "native plants" are definitely not the right choice to install in an urban landscape.
Though nursery stock has increased in the past few years, "native plants" are difficult to find in large quantities, or in larger stock sizes, and in many cases are entirely not available.
Natural plants communities cannot be managed the same way a manicured urban landscape is managed. They require a community based management approach rather than a traditional plant specific approach. Most landscape maintenance crews will be unfamiliar with natural plant community management.
Often the desire to use natural plants is not at all directed at low water use. It may be desired for ecological and habitat purposes. In these cases, the term may be appropriate.
Drought Tolerant Plants
When water savings are the intent, even the use of the term "drought tolerant plants" is problematic. The issue with using this term is inherent in the terminology itself. The word tolerant does not promise or even infer a long term solution to the problem. The word tolerant actually means to accept something that is not ideal, even harmful or unpleasant. Plants that are drought tolerant are most often not tolerant of drought forever. They tend to be plants that have metabolic processes allowing them to survive through prolonged periods without water, though not at an ideal level of growth, health or stamina. In other words, the plants may not die, but they most often won't look good either. Examples of this are many wetland and riparian plants that in ideal times grow in direct contact with water systems and require large amounts of water. During periods of drought they wilt, shed braches and leaves and rely on deep roots to provide just enough water to survive, while the vegetation at the surface may look anemic, dry and brittle. Plants may exist in this condition for several years, until water becomes readily available and the plant can continue with its typical growth characteristics. If this is not the intent of the landscape aesthetic, then this term should not be used.
Low Water Use Plants
In most cases, within the developed urban environment, the use of the term "low water use plants" is the most appropriate term to express the desire for a reduction of applied water in the landscape. This term allows a designer to be flexible in the use of naturalized, "native plants", when appropriate, and subsidize them with introduced plants that have grown accustomed to the climate and that will accomplish the goals of the project. This term removes the confusion related to definitions of native, and the misunderstandings of what drought tolerant really means. In short, low water use plants are a more encompassing group of ornamental plants, with widespread variety that thrive on lower volumes of water applied less frequently than plants most people are familiar with. They appear, and are, healthy, vibrant, colorful and less seasonal, despite heavy reductions in water application. Landscape managers are more accustomed to managing these types of plants, and they are more easily introduced into manicured landscapes. As is the case with other plant types, selection of the right low water use plant depends highly on the climate zone, soil types, pH levels, salt content of the soil and water, sun exposure, organic content in the soil, and soil nutrient levels.
Currently the three terms discussed above (Native, Drought Tolerant, Low Water Use) are being used interchangeably as blanket terms to mean plants that are to replace the high water use plants used by previous generations. This is inappropriate as each of the terms have significantly different nuances that have significant repercussions on landscape outcomes when they are used. Armed with the knowledge presented in this article, communicating the goal of any water saving landscape should now be much more clear, precise, and understandable.
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1-Las Pilitas Nursery. http://www.laspilitas.com/nature-of-california/communities. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
2-California Water Services. Low-Water and Drought-Resistant Plants. https://www.calwater.com/conservation/low-water-drought-resistant-plants/ Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
3-Sunset. http://www.sunset.com/garden/climate-zones/sunset-climate-zone-california-desert Web. 30 Mar. 2016.