Native plants in your garden?

'Native plants' is a term that means plants that are indigenous to a location, that are there without human introduction. In Ireland, we have plants that are native to specific locations, such as native woodland plants, native coastal plants, native bog plants, and so on. Together, they are all native to the island of Ireland as a whole. Being next to the UK and Europe, many of our native plants are also their native plants. In fact, because the UK is bigger than Ireland, and Europe is bigger than the UK, we have far fewer native plants than they do. A little tiny rock in the ocean may have just a handful of plants that can survive on it, and the habitat is far from divers. A continent with the geographical range of Europe has multiple different climates and environments, and therefore many more native plants.

There is a definite trend towards planting native plants in our gardens. The logic is that we have evolved with the plants around us, that they are part of our heritage and culture. Hand in hand with plants are the animals that rely on them for food and habitat. It is a beautiful system in which everything is interlinked, naturally and culturally. In earlier generations, humans' connection to the plants and animals around them was stronger than it is now, because these were the things that sustained life: the natural world was the source of foood, clothing, shelter, fuel, furniture, tools.... everything was reconfigured and used, with a role in day-to-day life and language.

Things changed a long time ago though, because humans starting moving things around, first locally and then globally. Potatoes from South America were tasty and easy to grow, and could sustain a population much more eaasily than the local vegetation. A vast acreage was turned from 'nature' to mono-crop, ultimately leading to human devastation.... we forget about the displaced flora that came with the turning of each sod. Native forests were levelled and grass was sown to produce beef and milk. Smaller grazing animals such as sheep grazed to such an extent that plants couldn't regenerate. Native pine trees were harvested to almost the brink of extinctionin Ireland, and had to be reintroduced from Scotland in the 17th century. World travel became became easier, and plants from places as far-flung as New Zealand, China, Africa, the Americas and Africa found they could thrive here in Ireland. There are pockets of Ireland that feel just like home for them, so we have south American Fuchsias thriving alongside Himalayan Rhododendrons. We have New Zealand palm trees putting down roots on our chimney pots alongside Chinese Buddleias. Mexican fleabane grows on our walls under a canopy of Eucalyptus. Our commercial woodlands consist almost entirely of spruce, hemlock and fir, all of them from other continents. Our suburban gardens are mash-ups from every continent: lavender, olives and bay from southern Europe. Agapanthus and osteospermum from Africa. Bamboos, maples and camellias from China and Japan. It's a completely diverse environment and there is no turning it back.

We need to think about this not in terms of loss, but instead as change. The loss of our natural environment is of course a sad thing, and we can see it happening to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, right as we speak. But a landscape such as ours, which has been altered dramaticaly for thousands of years, is a different matter. Everything about the world is changing, and always has been. Landscapes have been altered and manipulated by humans for so long that it is almost impossible to pick a time when they were naturally 'pure'. Farming has transformed the natural world and the physical landscape, so we'd need to go back to the hunter-gatherer era to have a truly 'natural' environment. The rolling green fields of Ireland are no more natural than golf courses.

When it comes to gardens, some schools of thought advocate planting native plants in our gardens. The argument is that anyone with a garden has the responsibility of preserving our natural heritage, of doing the right thing by planting native plants, or because our native plants and animals are part of our cultural heritage. This makes a lot of sense if you live in an 'unspoilt' location, in rural Ireland where you can be part of the fight-back against 'alien' or 'invasive' species, where 'suburban' plants look and feel wrong. Luckily, there is still a critical mass of natural, native vegetataion in hedgerows, copses and neglected corners. Anyone with a garden in the countryside should, if  space permits, have native plants around their boundary.  At this point in time, though, the majority of us live in cities and suburbs, or small towns with small gardens. This is a diverse human population, with people from all over the world.  Our diets consist of foods from around the world, of oils and spices from every continent. Our clothes are made in one place with materials from another. Our cultural life is from all corners of the world. This is what is called diversity, and diversity is a good thing.

By introducung diversity into our gardens we are, at this stage, enhancing the natural world. Research shows that suburban gardens support a greater diversity of wildlife than rural ones. A diversity of plant species will support a diversity of animal species. Sometimes  the advice is to 'let nature take its course and see what evolves'. This doesn't work in a suburban or pre-cultivated setting. A small garden of disturbed topsoil will fill with rank 'invasive' plants that nobody likes. We should absolutely be planting for wildlife, choosing plants with diverse flowering times, with berries, with fruit and so on. We should never ever use any chemicals in our gardens. We should allow plants to 'go over' a little bit so that there is some natural decay. We shoudl alow 'weeds' some foothold, and find room for the odd dandelion, nettle, buttercup and daisy. We should have a native tree or two if there is space. Plants should be chosen on the basis of whether or not they will be successful where they planted, because you want them to feel like they are at 'home' in your garden, even if they originated on the other side of the world. The goal should be to have as many plants as possible and as few paved or hard surfaces as possible.... but not to obsess over where things come from. We shouldn't do this with humans, and nor should we with plants.

non native but wild plants ireland.jpg

Non-native plants that grow wild are called 'naturalised' plants. This is a section of our own garden, with native hedgerow trees in the background.