Native plants are on the rise

Echinacea purpurea field. Field of blooming red coneflowers, echinacea purpurea.

Native plant consumption in the US continues to grow organically from consumer demand and through purchases mandated by legislation. Debbie Hamrick comments on the situation. She is the founding publisher of FloraCulture International and is currently the Director of Specialty Crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau. For the April 2024 issue of FloraCulture International, she wrote the following about native plants in the United States.

FloraCulture International Founder: Debbie Hamrick

Plants native to the continental United States seem to be taking a greater market share of landscape plant sales for American consumers. The trajectory is slow and steady. Nationally, 10-17 per cent of nursery plant production is comprised of native plant species based on voluntary industry surveys. In my home state of North Carolina, native plants make up about 14.2 per cent of nursery plant production, which is about $29 million in farm gate value. Many American native plants have horticultural value and have been used in European gardens for centuries. Species like the perennials Aquilegia canadensis, Echinacea purpurea or Rudbeckia laciniata, the vine Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and the stately tree Liriodendron tulipifera are well known.

A loss of biodiversity

The native plant movement does not sit well with many in the nursery and greenhouse industry. American plant growers are independent businessmen and women. They are entrepreneurs and generally dislike rules and regulations. In the past few years, several states have passed legislation that at times mandates the use of native plants for certain projects and at other times bans the production of popular nursery species (Berberis sp., for instance) that have harmed the environment by becoming so well established that they push out native plant species.

Many environmental groups see the 32 million ha of managed landscapes in the US as vital to the biodiversity of native animal and plant species for the future. The following illustration helps to put into perspective how critically important the issue is to the groups promoting more native plants. In the mid-2000s, a land conservation group in my state of North Carolina estimated that for every person who relocated here, we lost about one hectare of land that was converted mainly from farmland or forestland to housing, shopping centres, schools, roads, parking lots, etc. In 2023 alone, 140,000 new residents moved here. As a result, we lost a lot of land to development. Our state has significant biodiversity that many wish to preserve. For instance, 564 native bee species, many of them dependent on specific plants. Native plant proponents see the loss of wildlife habitat as dire.

There are not enough plants to meet the demand

The topic of how to get more native plants into the marketplace (and thus the landscape) in the US is mired in complexity. Proponents of native plants say there are not enough plants to meet demand. Often, they do not grasp the realities of plant production and the intricacies of plant breeding, plant propagation, pathogen control, crop culture, plant markets, distribution logistics and retailing. Nurserymen and growers likewise have generally avoided the science and complexity of native plant communities and the web of wildlife and ecosystems that rely upon them. Native plant proponents complain about homogeneous landscapes that look the same no matter what region of the country, calling it ‘Generica america’. Nursery and plantsmen joke about how unruly and out of control many native plants can be in modern landscapes. Exuberant growth is one reason native plants are successful in their habitat.

More diversity is better

The one concept native plant proponents and nurserymen both agree upon is that more diversity in the landscape is better. Research has shown that landscapes need a lot of different plants in addition to structural complexity and timing of available resources that are synced with the wildlife species present to support native wildlife. That means flowers with nectar and pollen when bees, moths and butterflies are present, the plant genera necessary for a food source for butterflies and moths in their larval forms, and plants with fruit and seed for birds and mammals.

State funding

Our state legislature passed a law last year mandating the use of native plants for certain projects that are funded with state funding. Thankfully, the industry was able to have the original bill amended with language that allows for the use of plants native to the Southeastern US and allows for many cultivars of native plants. Cultivars, so-called “nativars,” are acceptable if they have not been bred to curtail the use of plants for wildlife. For example, double flowers that are missing reproductive structures or that are pollenless are not allowed. At the same time, a cultivar that has a better plant form or disease resistance would be allowed. It’s a good thing we were able to amend the original language to allow cultivars because new diseases and insects like vascular streak dieback (Ceratobasidium theobromae) on Cercis canadensis or ambrosia beetles (Scolytinae and Platypodinae) that attack many plant species are affecting native plants.

Native plants for nursery production

Recently, in my state of North Carolina, I helped to organise a full-day seminar on native plants for nursery production. The focus was on plants grown for use in managed residential, business and institutional landscapes. A small organising committee developed a program that approached the topic from multiple angles. We curated an audience of about 70 individuals from nurseries, breeding companies, plant distribution companies, botanic gardens, public gardens, parks, plant retailers, landscapers, landscape architects and designers, non-profit environmental groups, native plant proponents, scientists and researchers, and government agencies.

The most valuable outcome of the day was the interaction between the individuals present. Most people in the room would never have met one another but for our one-day gathering. The next most important point is also related to networking that occurred: communication. Nurseries already produce many native plant species, but often, they are not marketed as such. Communicating talking points about cultivars and varieties of native plants that perform better in the landscape or that may be resistant to emerging diseases could convey that the plant industry is doing a lot already. Communication from native plant proponents back to the nursery industry that discusses specific plants and their purpose in the landscape would be welcome.

Reality is complicated

Unfortunately, many native plant proponents recite misleading and often incorrect statements, such as native plants do not require additional water or fertiliser and are well adapted to native soils. The realities of these talking points are much more complex. Native plants are often thought to be more sustainable than introduced species. The reality is that it is complicated.

At our one-day event, the audience learned that if we cannot spend money to improve disturbed soils in the landscape, native plants will not survive, much less thrive. Low-bid landscapes are often won by contractors who put plants last on the list. Soils are not part of their thought process. This was news to many in the room not from the horticulture industry.

Lead time for order fulfilment is vitally important. Nurseries need to know in advance the number of plants required for large-scale projects in order to build up enough stock. Some in the audience were shocked to hear a nursery talk about dumping hundreds of native plants because they could not sell them. By the time the nursery builds supply, landscape architects have moved on to the next “hot” plant. We also learned that, here in North Carolina, governments cannot enter growing contracts in the two to four-year advance timeframe needed to build up stock.

Difficult to propagate

Native proponents also need to understand that many native species are very difficult to propagate, may not lend themselves to nursery production systems and may not have an appearance at the point of sale that is attractive to consumers. If these factors are solved, then there must also be market demand. A nursery cannot simply switch production to native plants from their existing product assortment. The market has to be developed. Every product addition must make sense economically. The audience learned an inconvenient truth: We do not see new, start-up commercial-scale nursery growers in the US. Existing commercial-scale nursery growers currently sell just about everything they have. If natives are to grow in importance, nurseries must be convinced that they will make their money. While small native plant nurseries are starting up, their limited supply doesn’t impact the market beyond a local area.

Native plants are not a panacea

Maybe the reasons why nurseries should take a closer look at native plants are intangible. Several industry economists published a paper in 2022 titled “Investigating Drivers of Native Plant Production in the United States Green Industry”. To excerpt, “Firms selling native plants had characteristics that differed from other green industry firms. These characteristics are notable for their progressive nature: they implemented more IPM practices than non-native nurseries, grew a greater variety of plant species, and sold plant products to a greater diversity of outlets. In short, they paid attention to the many ways to make their firm more profitable by examining and adopting differentiation strategies that resulted in higher quality crops available for greater market prices.”

Like many meetings addressing difficult questions, our day drew no single conclusion. We did. However, we all left with a lot more knowledge and context so that the questions and ideas to come will be better informed. Native plants are not a panacea. They can, however, become a profitable part of a nursery’s assortment. Sometimes, mandates may not be all bad.

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