The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pangaea Woodland: The "Natives" are Getting Restless

The Woodland Garden in Progress

Native plants are currently in vogue and planting them is politically correct. As I am planning my woodland garden, I keep trying define what is a native plant? In my mind, that classification is contingent on both distance and time. What is native plant for a woodland garden in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire? How many miles away from my garden does the plant need to be found in nature in order to be considered a native in my garden? Fifty miles? Five hundred miles? Is it defined by growing in North America? How recently must that plant have grown in my region in order to be considered native? One hundred years ago ? One thousand years ago? One hundred thousand years ago?

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' is lovely native American shrub that is an excellent edge-of-the-woodland plant. Michael Dirr selected it at the Mt. Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati for it vigorous habit, fragrant white flowers in late April and outstanding claret fall foliage. Dirr believes it may be a cross of Fothergilla major and Fothergilla gardenii. Fothergilla. major, although hardy to Zone 4, is native to the Allegheny Mountains from northern North Carolina and Tennessee to northern Alabama. Yes, it is a native American plant, but what business does it have being grown in a New Hampshire garden claiming to contain only native plants? Native to where?

A plant that I currently have in my garden is Acer pectinatum ssp. forrestii, a rare Asian snake bark maple with handsome butter-yellow fall foliage and white-striped bark and the smaller branches which become a dark red color in winter. I chose it because it is proported to be more tolerant to difficult growing conditions than the other striped bark maples. Even the most educated snake bark connoisseur would be hard pressed to distinguish it from Acer pensylvanicum, the so-called moosewood maple, another striped bark maple which thrives in the moist shady woodlands throughout the Monadnock Region in New Hampshire. Acer pensylvanicum is closely related to Acer pectinatum ssp. forrestii, yet the live on seperate continents.

Millions of years ago, before plate tectonics moved the continents apart as they are now, the northern latitudes of Europe, Asia, and North America shared numerous plant and animal species. Genetically, Acer pectinatum ssp. forrestii and Acer pensylvanicum are nearly an identical plant. If one looked at plants from that perspective, perhaps Acer pectinatum ssp. forrestii could be considered a native in my garden.

Calling my developing woodland garden the Wild Garden doesn't really fit what I am trying to accomplish there. The Pangaea Woodland is a better way to describe my intention. I am going to take a cue from Chanticleer's Asian Woods by attempting to emulate an American woodland garden but not limiting myself to plants native to New Hampshire or even North America. The garden must feel naturalistic. The stone steps will feel like a hike in the White Mountains and I am going restrain myself from planting anything with too much variegation or oddly colored foliage. There will be no invasive species from any continent. It will be a New Hampshire woodland garden that have plants that feel right in New Hampshire.

Yes, I wil create a Pangaea Woodland.


  1. Ahhhh, yes, the "native" dilemma! I think the best approach is generally what you are doing...a combination of non-invasive plants and plants that are suited to the location conditions. In the end, I think that is more important than a rigid list of true "natives". After all, unless the conditions are exactly what they were before people settle there, it's a changed environment anyway.

  2. Unless you are creating an educational public garden, I don't really think this matters much. It would be foolish not to use native plants that are beautiful & well-adapted to your site. I think it's just as foolish not to use exotics that meet the same criteria. If you think of what would be native to your site, what was there before the land was developed in any way, I think you would come up with a very limited plant palette, not very pleasing at all.

  3. An interesting exploration of the dilemma and I feel sure your approach is the one that I would adopt were that my intention.

  4. I think you have made a wise choice in mixing the two, especially if your design is to make it look fitting, not matter the plants origin.

  5. Scott,
    Thanks for the vote of confidence.
    Thanks for the comment. I do have the native pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, self seeding around. I am trying to edit the seedlings for the best effect. Still need to get to know all my native woodlanders better. I am planning to return to Garden in the Woods this spring.
    Robert and Les,
    Thanks for your comments. Feeling like I am on the right track!

  6. I'm entirely in agreement. Plant what looks natural (as long as it's not a rampant fiend). It's almost impossible to define native plant, especially in the environment of the 21st century. All is changed.

  7. Most of my design career I have agreed with your position. Which era of native plants, blah, blah, blah. After hearing Doug Tallamy and reading Bringing Nature Home I finally understand one of the main reasons to add in native plants to the typically Asian landscapes of America. We can share the space.

  8. Hi Donna,
    Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I have heard about Doug Tallamy but haven't read Bringing Nature Home. Your comment is making me want to read it for myself. I do have many natives in my garden especially some of the fruit-bearing shrubs but don't want to be limited by only natives.



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