Return of the Native

Sept. 1, 2004
Anyone who’s using revegetation as a means of erosion control has most likely encountered many different views on the use of native plants, from federal guidelines directing the planting of only native species on federal land to state, county, and local rules to individual property owners’ preferences. It’s a complicated issue, and what’s ideal or desirable is often at odds with what’s possible and practical. Open prairie once covered about 40% of the continental United States, and although much of that area is now used for growing crops and grazing cattle, a few areas remain untouched, and others are being restored with native grasses. In his book Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, Richard Manning explores many “native vs. non-native” questions-interesting, and important to keep in mind when you’re making decisions on what to plant. Ultimately, he’s in favor of resurrecting the prairies, and he moves into more sweeping arguments, too, about the illogical practice of feeding corn to cattle and the wisdom of trying to reintroduce herds of bison to the restored areas… but of course those are larger battles than most of us are dealing with day to day. So many erosion control projects involve immediate and specific concerns-revegetating quickly in fire-devastated areas, for example, where the first priority might be protecting roads and developments from the onslaught of suddenly barren earth during the next rainstorm. On roadside projects, what to plant might be determined more by questions of visibility (tall grasses interfere with drivers’ line of sight) and ease of maintenance (how often do we need to mow it?) than with consideration of what once grew in the region. Well-trafficked public areas seem to call for turf that provides a durable playing field for humans rather than plentiful grazing for bison-which, no matter how one views the feasibility of bringing them back in vast numbers, would require a major overhaul of our land-use practices, economy, and ideas about land ownership and is not something most of us are likely to be working on this week or next. Manning cites conservation biologists who consider invasion by exotic species of plants and animals part of the “evil quartet” (along with habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and climate change) that is driving rapid extinctions. Part of the problem, though, is that people don’t always recognize the invaders among the natives. Once something becomes well established, even in an area where it didn’t belong before-trees and even whole forests in land that once was prairie, for example-people see it as “natural” and right, and they get upset when someone tries to remove it. Kentucky bluegrass, for instance, isn’t part of quintessential nature of the South as we tend to believe but rather is a transplant that arrived with early European settlers and rapidly drove out much of what grew in its path. But telling that to someone who associates it fondly with the homegrown music or the Thoroughbred horses of the region doesn’t usually get you an enthusiastic response. Some specialists advocate compromise, such as creating new plant communities where native and non-native species of grasses exist in sustainable combinations, because eliminating all the non-native species seems an impossible task (see “Going for Green: Creating a Prairie on New Ground” in the July/August 2000 issue of Erosion Control). Others experiment with various herbicides to cost-effectively remove undesirable plants on a large scale (see “Native Warm-Season Grasses for Erosion Control? You Gotta Be Kidding!” in the November/December 2000 issue). Still others insist on using plants native not only to the general region but to a very specific location, despite the challenges of limited availability of native seed and long-established use of non-natives for erosion control and land reclamation (“Seeds: Something Old, Something New,” May/June 2003). If you’re making planting decisions and are facing a “native” dilemma of your own, tell us about it at [email protected]. What’s driving the decision, and what are the difficulties-horticultural or political-you’re facing? We’ll be exploring the question more in upcoming issues.