The Need for Garden Democracy

Phytolacca americana—better known by most as “pokeweed”—can be a source of controversy. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

While talking to an acquaintance the other day, a good friend commented on the attractiveness of a particular plant in her neighborhood. The acquaintance snapped, “Not native,” thereby effectively ending the conversation. My friend was left with the feeling that perhaps she had no right to express her opinion on a non-native plant.

Now, this is an explosive topic in our town, with—as far as I can determine—open hostility on the native side of the argument versus those of us who enjoy lots of different kinds of plants. Several years ago, I wrote an article for “Triangle Gardener” expressing my humble opinion that perhaps instead of endlessly discussing native versus exotic plants, we should focus on those plants that have positive qualities. You can view the article here.

The hate mail I received was rather extraordinary (something I did not appreciate). I sent my article to several notable names in the field of horticulture, asking them if I had been wrong in my ideas. They hastened to say that they were in full agreement with my article.

I realize that the North Carolina Botanical Garden has a mandate to both grow and educate the public on native plants. I think that is great. I also note that the JC Raulston Arboretum believes in the introduction of plants, regardless of origin, that have redeeming qualities and are not harmful to our environment. I love the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, which certainly has more than its share of exotic plants (although I have long argued for the removal of its Japanese wisteria exhibit).

Plants demonstrate certain qualities, ones that all conscientious gardeners must examine. Poison ivy, for example, is beloved by birds and turns into such a magnificent color in autumn that the English settlers actually sent it back to England. However, I have a son who is so allergic to it that he once almost ended up in the hospital, so I will not tolerate its existence in my yard.

My neighbors’ tulip poplars, Liriodendron tulipifera, want to overrun my garden. Every year I must weed out at least one hundred seedlings. Fortunately, they are easy to pull out, but this is one seedy tree. Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, probably has some proponents, but I dislike it because this is a plant that has no limits—and can be hard to pull out.

I noticed that the North Carolina Botanical Garden posted a picture of pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, extolling it virtues, on Facebook. Now, this is a native plant that is toxic to humans, dogs, and livestock. It is extremely seedy. It’s a horrible weed in my garden with only one virtue: it is very easy to pull out when young. A mature pokeweed has an extremely long, tough taproot.

A closer look at pokeweed, which poses harm to children and pets if ingested. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Those who have young children or pets should not have this plant in their garden. Young children will be attracted to the toxic berries while dogs have been known to have a sudden urge to take a bite out of plants. Birds, impervious to their poison, love the berries, but I garden for my enjoyment and the health of my dogs, not necessarily to sate the appetite of birds. I feel that the North Carolina Botanical Garden did us no favor by extolling the merits of this native plant. By all means put it in your garden, but please be aware of its limitations. I’m not sure you can buy it at the local garden center—but rest assured, it will undoubtedly find its way to your garden.

Yes, if you boil it three different times, it suddenly becomes magically edible. I, for one, have no wish to take that chance.

Once I gave a presentation along with Mark Weathington, director of the JC Raulston Arboretum, to a group of Master Gardeners. Mark started off his presentation by stating that he had an intellectual interest in plants in general, a remark that hit home with me. Many of us gardeners feel that way. We can be interested in different plants, whether they are native or exotic.

I will argue on my deathbed that gardens are unnatural creations. We place plants that would never meet up with one another in the wild next to each other. We try to avoid plants that will run out of control, something that nature doesn’t always do. Gardens in many ways are beauty pageants, extolling the looks of individual plants.

Gardening is also a subjective endeavor: We have aims that are personal and we have a responsibility to create individual aesthetic results. In other words, we place plants in our gardens for a definite purpose. Some choose to honor pollinators; others want to nurture birds, while still others want to savor the individual plants.

As gardeners, we have certain responsibilities. We should not incorporate plants that are invasive—and, yes, some exotic plants are invasive, but, so I would argue, is pokeweed. We must use some plants that attract pollinators, but this doesn’t mean that all plants have to provide a pollinator haven. The important thing is to research those plants you want to put in your garden. Just because it’s for sale at the local garden center doesn’t mean that it’s safe to place in the garden. There are plants, both native and exotic, that I refuse to have in mine.

Remember this: It’s your right to grow pokeweed (although your neighbors will not thank you as it’s terribly seedy) just as it’s my right to spurn it.

We can certainly agree to disagree on the issue of native versus exotic plants. However, just as in politics, we should listen with respect to the other side because there really are two sides to this issue, much as you might not want to admit it. The pollinators love my roses and gardenias, and—if they bloomed at a different time of year—they might also enjoy my camellias. Not one of these exotic plants that give me a lot of pleasure are invasive.

Again: It’s your right to have a garden filled with native plants, just as it’s my right to garden with a wide variety of plants from different locales. That’s what garden democracy is all about.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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2 Comments on "The Need for Garden Democracy"

  1. Kit,
    I enjoy reading your articles on gardens and gardening and your insightful personal comments. I was perplexed by one of the photos of pokeweed that appeared in your recent article on Garden Democracy. It does not seem reminiscent of pokeweed that I have seen.
    Incidentally, before renovations of the town area began in earnest, I remember seeing a huge population of pokeweed that grew in the parking lot at the back side of old Fowler’s grocery store on West Franklin Street.

  2. Thank you for this commonsense article on the controversial subject of native vs. non-native plants. To quote Tony Avent of Plants Delight Nursery ” in Raleigh “There’s no such thing as native. Only time. ” Fossils of the Asian Ginkgo tree have been found here in North Carolina. As long as they are not invasive , non-native plants can in some cases actually be more beneficial than native. We humans are not native, neither is the honey bee and many of the fruits and vegetables we grow. Striving to have a garden with early and long-blooming flowers to feed the pollinators is a much more important consideration than native vs. non-native.

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