Native Plant Myth Number One

by Shirley Denton
Have you ever read a newspaper article or website that makes a statement like this:

"Planting natives will save water."?

This is an example of a native plant myth. Most myths, including this one, come from broad generalizations that are only sometimes true. Likewise, the converse, "planting non-natives will waste water" is a broad generalization that is not always true either.

This article covers this myth, and future blog posts will address some others. Stay tuned...

Florida's varied ecosystems

Florida has a broad range of native ecosystems that support characteristic plant communities. We have rosemary and sand pine scrubs and sandhills (very dry), we have flatwoods (moderately wet to moderately dry), we have hammocks (some wet, some dry), we have wetlands such as swamps (very wet), and a long list of other ecosystems. A good summary of these and others is found on the FNPS website resource article: Native Plant Communities.

Semi-wild St.Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum)
If you plant most wetland plants, native or otherwise, in a dry upland and want them to live, they will require lots and lots of water. No savings will come of it. In fact, St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) is considered by most taxonomists to be a native Florida plant, and it is found in nature most often in shady, moist settings near the coast and near floodplain edges. Of course, St. Augustine lawns are usually specific strains (cultivars) and do not closely resemble the native form. Some cultivars require more water than others, but given its preference for moist sites when growing in the wild, it's not surprising that this native turns out to be a huge water waster when planted in the typical suburban lawn. After all, most of us do not want to live in the swamp and our lawns are perched on dry fill pads.

On the other hand, coming from some part of the world other than Florida does not necessarily mean that a plant will be a water waster in the landscape. Plants that naturally come from dry places, such as ornamental cacti and succulents, originate from dry regions of the world or from very well drained sites in areas of moderate rainfall. These drought-adapted plants can be just as effective as our drought-adapted natives, if your only goal is to save water.

So why the myth? Usually myths come about for some reason.

I have a theory, though I can't prove it. When I walk through many retail plant stores, I see plants that are inexpensive. This means that they have to grow fast and be easy for the nursery to supply in bulk. I see plants that can be teased into blooming profusely to encourage us to take them home. I see plants that need a lot of water (and nutrients) to get them to do this. If the nursery is selling them from some combination of fast to grow and responsive to water and nutrients, it's not surprising that they will still need lots of water and nutrients when we put them in our landscapes. Luckily, in more recent years, there are "Florida friendly" with signs indicating that they will require less water. My theory is that this myth originated from the characteristics of plants that have been the easiest and cheapest to buy.

Island of native plants in a dry home landscape that relies on rainfall
(even the grass is not watered).
So the take-home message--grow the right plant for the right place! If you have a natural soil with its natural drainage, choose plants from the types of ecosystems that would have been where your home is now. If you live on fill, plant plants that are found naturally in our drier ecosystems. Clearly, I'm biased, I plant natives because they are much more likely to benefit our native butterflies, native bees, and wildlife and they also showcase our Florida natural heritage. But if you are going to grow non-natives, choose ones that come from places with soils similar to where you intend to plant them and climates that are relatively similar to ours, and by all means, avoid invasives!

The message to minimize lawn is also usually consistent with this. St. Augustine grass is a moist site plant and (at least in newer developments) is our most common lawn grass. Some other grasses are much less wasteful. If you replace the water-guzzling grass with beds of plants adapted to the local soil and ambient rainfall, much less water will be wasted. I again prefer natives, but I prefer them for the reasons I've already indicated--I like butterflies in my yard! I like birds!

It is worth noting, plants grow naturally where they grow for more reasons than water. Some plants may grow in wet places because these are less likely to burn in a wildfire. Others may grow there because their seeds are dispersed by water, or maybe they need a certain microbe found only in damp soil. Our yards are not native ecosystems, but with due diligence in selecting appropriate native plants, we can develop a good imitation of one with the all rewards of all those birds and butterflies. As a bonus, you'll also be helping to preserve Florida's water supply.

Broad generalizations make new myths!

Outreach is an important part of the FNPS mission, but the next time you are talking to the public about how great natives are, be sure that you are not over-generalizing!


Comments

The origin of this "myth" is in early advocacy efforts to replace turf grass lawns in California and the American southwest: places where the advice was certainly true. Why native advocates in other regions, with plenty of rainfall, repeat this unthinkingly is beyond me.

Thanks for posting this.
seedscatterer said…
Have you noticed that many people translate in their minds, "Low maintenance" to 'NO Maintenance' and "Low water needs" to 'Needs NO water to survive' -- resulting in disappointments.

I was just thinking yesterday about a young man whose home I visited some years back who bought Bonsai plants and planted them in the yard. A little research would save much grief and a lot of waste.
Hobo Botanist said…
I never thought of it as a myth, as it generally is true when interpreting as "need no additional watering" and for other reasons which I'll explain below. Yes certain wetland species my require lengthy hydroperiods, but I have cypress in my swale that never has any hydroperiod. My lawn turns brown in the winter, which is natural for that time of year, plus it full of weeds which are more drought tolerant. I don't irrigate anything except edibles and newly planted material, and then only hand watering for a brief time. It is true, that certain exotics (such as the showy Bougainvillea) thrive on little water, but homeowners often apply pesticides or fertilizers to them. And let us not forget the offset water costs when one purchases these chemicals to place on their landscapes. In addition, native plant growers from whom you get your plants are often cognizant of using too many resources to grow their product, so the plants one purchases are often grown with less wasteful methods (yes a generalization). I also think that the zeitgeist of native landscaping is to generally use less, and when one embraces using natives in the landscape, they naturally adhere to that philosophy. So in the end, planting native plants generally saves water if not directly then at least indirectly.
Great point - I've heard this generalization too. You know, if you plant native elderberries in a pine hammock or try to grow cattails in your front garden, you certainly won't be saving water. Right plant, right place indeed!

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