Dana Millbank is a political columnist for the Washington Post. He broke out of his political mold on April 7, 2023 to write an article about gardening published by the Post, which repeats every myth of the nativist ideology.
A team of dismayed critics of invasion biology has responded to excerpts of Millbank’s column:
- Marlene A. Condon is a garden writer based in Virginia and the author of The Nature Friendly Garden. She has a degree in physics. Her entire critique of Millbank’s column is available on her website. Her comments address the reader.
- Carol Reese is a retired Extension Horticulture Specialist who conducted her 27 year career from the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson, where a large and diverse display garden gave her the opportunity to observe biodiversity in action on an enormous range of plant species from other parts of the world. She describes herself as a farm raised country girl tomboy who has looked at the natural world in hundreds of settings and landscapes, natural and manmade, and read countless books and articles. She has written for several magazines, newspapers, articles for Garden Rant as well as university publications. Her speaking engagements around the country have allowed her to engage with many other green industry professionals. Dana Millbank’s column prompted her to email him directly with her concerns, directly addressing some of his assertions. I publish some excerpts here from her emails sent directly to Millbank.
- Conservation Sense and Nonsense is the webmaster of this website. I have studied invasion biology and the native plant movement it spawned for over 25 years. I’ve watched forests of healthy, non-native trees in California be destroyed and replaced by weedy grassland. I have used what I have learned to advocate for a less destructive approach to restoration, a word I am reluctant to use to describe projects that use herbicides to eradicate harmless plants and trees. My comments are addressed to the reader.
What follows are excerpts from Dana Millbank’s column with responses from Marlene Condon, Carol Reese, and Conservation Sense and Nonsense, just three of many skeptics of invasion biology. To summarize the point of our criticism:
- Insects are not dependent on native plants. They are just as likely to use related non-native plants in the same genus or even plant family with similar chemical properties and nutritional value.
- While some non-native plants have potential to be harmful, many are beneficial. There are pros and cons to both native and non-native plants and that judgment varies from one animal species to another, including humans. For example, we don’t like mosquitoes, but they are important food for bats and birds.
- All plants, whether native or non-native convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and store carbon. Destroying them contributes to greenhouse gases causing climate change.
- When the climate changes, vegetation must also change. Many non-native plants are better adapted to current climate and environmental conditions in disturbed ecosystems.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense
“I’m no genius about genuses, but your garden is killing the Earth”
By Dana Millbank
Washington Post, April 7, 2023
Millbank: I did almost everything wrong.
Reese: I’m so sorry you thought this!
Millbank: For 20 years, I found the latest, greatest horticultural marvels at garden centers and planted them in my yard: sunny knock-out roses, encore azaleas, merlot redbud, summer snowflake viburnum, genie magnolia, firepower nandina.
In between them flowed my lush, deep-green lawn. I hauled sod directly from the farm and rolled it out in neat rows. I core-aerated, I conditioned, I thatched, I overseeded, I fertilized. I weeded by hand, protecting each prized blade of tall fescue from crabgrass and clover.
In this season, a symphony of color performs in my yard. The fading daffodils, cherry blossoms, saucer magnolias, hyacinths and camellias meet the arriving tulips, lilacs, creeping phlox and azaleas, with the promise of rhododendrons, peonies, hydrangeas, day lilies and roses to debut in the coming weeks.
But this year, the bloom is off the rose. And the hydrangea. And the rhododendron. And all the rest. It turns out I’ve been filling my yard with a mix of ecological junk food and horticultural terrorists.
Condon: When Mr. Millbank posits that he’s “been filling his yard with a mix of ecological junk food and horticultural terrorists,” he’s channeling the kind of words Bringing Nature Home author Doug Tallamy loves to employ: Biased expressions that implant negative images in the reader’s mind so he will become yet another minion of this scientist. Nowadays you can’t read a garden or environmental column without being accosted with the same words or variations thereof, as if everyone has become a mouthpiece for Doug Tallamy, which I’ve never seen done more obviously than in this column by Dana Millbank.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: Millbank’s lengthy list of “bad” plants in his garden paints with too broad a brush. For example, instead of identifying a particular species of hydrangea and rhododendron, Millbank condemns an entire genus. Both hydrangea and rhododendron genera have several native species within the genus. Most (all?) species of phlox are also native to North America.
Millbank: When it comes to the world’s biodiversity crisis — as many as 1 million plant and animal species face near-term extinction because of habitat loss ― I am part of the problem. I’m sorry to say that if you have a typical urban or suburban landscape, your lawn and garden are also dooming the Earth.
Reese: YIKES! This is pretty extreme, and dare I say inaccurate? No, home gardeners are part of the solution, no matter the plants in their garden. Doom will come from lack of diverse green space. Doom will come from climate warming as a result, as well as from pollution, tillage, factory farming and development.
Millbank: I came to understand the magnitude of my offenses after enlisting in nature boot camp this spring. I’m in “basic training” with the state-sponsored Virginia Master Naturalist program. While others sleep in on rainy weekend mornings, my unit, the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists, has us plebes out in the wetlands distinguishing a yellow-bellied sap sucker from a pileated woodpecker.
I’m no genius with genuses, but I know a quercus from a kalmia, and because of my gardening experience, I began the program with confidence. Instead, I’ve discovered that all the backbreaking work I’ve done in my yard over the years has produced virtually nothing of ecological value — and some things that do actual harm.
A few of the shrubs I planted were invasive and known to escape into the wild. They crowd out native plants and threaten the entire ecosystem. Our local insects, which evolved to eat native plants, starve because they can’t eat the invasive plants or don’t recognize the invaders as food.
Reese: It sounds so logical, but is sooo inaccurate. Ask any entomologist that has spent their careers “fighting pests” on valued crop or ornamental plants. Remember Pangea [when all continents were fused into one]? More recently, have you thought about the exchange of plants and animals across Berengia when we were still connected to Asia? We can trace those relationships/kinships of our plants to Asian/Eurasian plants now through DNA. They eventually differentiated into species (a continuum of change caused by climate and geologic pressures until we [Man] declare it as a different species, though biologically it is still basically the same nutritional makeup)
Condon also dissects Millbank’s statement:
- “They crowd out native plants and threaten the entire ecosystem.” Read virtually any description of where you find so-called invasive plant species and you will find the word “disturbed.” This tells you the soil profile has been negatively impacted by people, animals, or weather, and usually means the topsoil is gone. Only very tough plants—known as colonizers—can grow in disturbed areas because the soil is nutrient-poor and is typically compacted. Consequently, these areas may fill with a mix of native and nonnative plants, or mainly one or the other—but every single plant is a colonizer that is working to rehabilitate the land for the benefit of the native plants that require topsoil in which to grow. “Invasiveness” is nothing more than a derogatory word used by people with contempt for alien-plant colonization. Conclusions: Alien plants can’t “crowd out” native plants because once the soil is disturbed and thus degraded, most of our native plants can’t grow there and thus are not there to be crowded out. As for “threatening the entire ecosystem,” to the contrary, alien colonizers are helping to restore it.
- “Our local insects, which evolved to eat native plants, starve because they can’t eat the invasive plants or don’t recognize the invaders as food.” This oft-repeated distorted premise comes straight out of Bringing Nature Home, in which Doug Tallamy deceptively writes about “an excellent demonstration of how restricted a specialist’s [an insect with particular food preference] diet is.” Tallamy tells the story of Eastern Tent caterpillars on a cherry tee denuded of its own leaves but hosting a Japanese Honeysuckle vine. He writes that the caterpillars didn’t recognize the honeysuckle as food (sound familiar?) But, of course, they didn’t because this species of insect can only eat plants in the Rose Family, which does not include honeysuckle. What Doug Tallamy doesn’t tell the reader is that the tent caterpillars could certainly have eaten the so-called invasive Multiflora Rose, which I’ve documented in the photo below. Conclusion: Native insects did not evolve to eat only local (native) plants, but rather can typically feed upon dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of plants related to each other by family classification, even though they grow in other countries.
Millbank: This in turn threatens our birds, amphibians, reptiles, rodents and others all the way up the food chain. Incredibly, nurseries still sell these nasties — without so much as a warning label.
Reese: As I read, I also watch the many birds on my lawn, the fence lizards on my decks, the insects humming among the flowers in my diverse collection of native cultivars and introduced plants.
Millbank: Most of my other plants, including my beloved lawn, are ecological junk food.
Reese: Now, now! Many (most) natives do not supply useful forage either. All plants supply some benefit. They provide shelter, create, improve and anchor soil, cleanse air and water, make oxygen and cool the planet. The plant must be judged on benefits versus detriments in each situation. If a nonnative plant is the only thing that will flourish in bombed out rubble, or contaminated soil, if it is providing many benefits, shall we rip it out because caterpillars won’t eat it? If we let it get established, will it ready the site for other species with more benefits to become established? Shall we get out of the way and let nature do what she does, which is heal herself?
Millbank: The trees, shrubs and perennials are mostly “naturalized” plants from Asia or Europe or “cultivars,” human-made varieties of native plants bred to be extra showy or disease resistant but lacking genetic diversity or value to animals. I, like other gardeners I know, planted them after mistaking them for their native cousins. They’re not doing harm, but neither are they doing anything to arrest the spiral toward mass extinction.
Reese: Please know that the most influential native plant botanical garden in the country (Mt. Cuba Center) has trialed the cultivars of native plants for their ecological benefits and found as should be expected, that each cultivar must be judged on its own merits. Some are better than the straight native as in the coneflowers where ‘Fragrant Angel’ scored tops for pollinators and many others were very close to being as good as straight species. These cultivars were even better than the other species of Echinacea tested. BTW, I grow E. purpurea, pallida, paradoxa, tennesseensis and laevigata as well as many cultivars. Remember that cultivars should also be judged on not just nutritional value, but other factors that increase benefits, such as length of bloom period, numbers of blooms, drought resistance, heat tolerance, hardiness, ease of production (cost) and durability. Please ask to speak to Sam Hoadley there as he leads the research on beneficial cultivars and has completed and undertaken several studies of different native species. Great guy and great speaker.
Please be aware that many cultivars originated as naturally occurring deviations in seedling populations, and as we know this actually diversifies the genetic pool, allowing Mother Nature to select the better form. We sometimes agree with her, and other times we may move along that diversifying form by crossing it with others that are demonstrating genetic variance. Logically, this actually furthers the cause of a broader genetic pool that can help in today’s crisis in showing which can cope and flourish.
Millbank: To get a sense of my missteps, I asked Matt Bright, who runs the nonprofit Earth Sangha, a native-plant nursery in Fairfax County (and a lecturer on botany for my nature boot camp) to walk through my yard with me.
He took aim at my day lilies: “I would remove them all. Those have also become badly invasive.”
He spied my creeping jenny on a slope: “Another nasty invasive.”
He condemned to death my rose of Sharon shrubs (natural areas “have really been torn up by these guys”) and my innocuously named summer snowflake viburnum.
Worst was my row of nandinas — “heavenly bamboo” — along the foundation. “You definitely want to remove it,” he advised. Its cyanide-laced berries poison birds.
Condon: This tactic is typical of the followers of Tallamy who want folks to perceive supposedly invasive plants as “bad” even though no evidence exists to support their accusations, especially in this instance. Mr. Millbank and Mr. Bright, who obviously supplied this information, have misspoken here. A study out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published in 2022, explains that Cedar Waxwings are the only birds that might be poisoned, and that’s only going to happen if someone grows so many nandinas that these birds consume large numbers of fruits in a single feeding bout. If you grow just one or even a few plants, you are not going to poison waxwings.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: Here in California, most berry-producing, non-native plants are considered “invasive” based on the assumption that birds eat the berries and spread the plants. Nandina was briefly on the list of invasive plants in California until knowledgeable people informed the California Invasive Plant Council that birds don’t eat the toxic berries. Nandina was removed from the invasive plant inventory long ago.
I also have personal experience with nandina and cedar waxwings. Flocks of waxwings visited my holly trees in San Francisco every year. They did not touch my three nandina plants.
Condon: I’ve had a Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) growing in my yard since I moved to my home in Virginia almost 40 years ago. In all this time, only one seedling from the plant I brought here has ever “volunteered” to become a second yard denizen. During the past 37 years, pollinators have fed at the original plant and then also at its offspring. What I’ve found by experience in my yard is that few plants can successfully move into a space that’s already filled with other plants. (Proving what physics tells us–that no two physical objects can occupy the same space). I’ve brought home numerous so-called invasive plants, only to have them disappear or simply stay put where I planted them. That’s because hundreds, if not thousands, of plants fill my yard.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: Virginia is one of only four states in which rose of Sharon is considered invasive. Condon’s experience with rose of Sharon in Virginia suggests that lists of “invasive plants” are either inaccurate or are serving another purpose (perhaps both). The longer the list of “invasive plants” the more work is created for the “restoration” (AKA eradication) industry.
Rose of Sharon is not considered invasive in California. This is a reminder that the behavior of plants varies because of the wide range of climate and environmental conditions. Nearly one third of the plants on California’s list of invasive plants are not considered invasive in California. They are on the list because they are considered invasive in Hawaii, a state with a warmer, wetter climate than California. In naming rose of Sharon as a dangerous invasive, a media resource with a national readership has made a generalization that red-lines more plants than necessary. They become targets for eradication with herbicide and they deprive us of the biodiversity that is particularly important in a changing climate in which biodiversity ensures resiliency.
Millbank: Bright did praise two “good” species I have that contribute to biodiversity: a sycamore and a catalpa as well as a “great” American elm and a “phenomenal” dogwood. (I couldn’t take much pride in them, though, because all four were here long before I arrived.) And Bright assured me I wasn’t a particularly egregious offender; my one-sixth acre lot in town is typical of the urban/suburban landscape.
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Lawns, and those useless, ubiquitous cultivars of trees, shrubs and perennials sold by the major garden centers, are squelching the genetic variety nature needs to adapt to climate change.
Reese: It’s actually the opposite. We need more plants in the mix. We need “the tumult of nature” to decide. We aren’t the jury, and we continue to interfere with our well-intended assumptions that we know best.
Lawns are full of wildlife when management is minimal. Mow. That’s all. Mow judiciously when “lawn weeds” are blooming. Watch birds feed on the many insects in the lawn including lepidopteran larvae. Realize that many moths pupate underground. Think of your lawn as haven for them and for the grubs birds relish as millions of acres across our country are being tilled for factory farms. Remember that the best habitat is mixed. Open areas bordered by wooded areas and most species love the borders. Our suburban landscapes are ideal if we just stop killing things.
Millbank: The resulting loss of native plants in our fragmented urban and suburban landscapes deprives both plants and wildlife of the contiguous habitats they need to breed and, over time, to migrate in response to climate change.
The deck is stacked against nature in this fight.
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If possible, you should remove the nastiest of the invasive plants if you have them: burning bush, Japanese barberry, Asian bush honeysuckle, English ivy, callery (Bradford) pear and a few others.
But leave the rest of your plants alone, for now. Tallamy ultimately wants to cut lawn acreage in half, but “there is room for compromise,” he said. Think of your noninvasive plants and cultivars as “decorations.”
Janet Davis, who runs Hill House Farm & Nursery in Castleton, Va., has a similar message for the purists who make you feel bad about your blue hydrangea. “Don’t give me crap about something that’s not native but not invasive,” she said. “I’m never going to tell you you can’t have your grandmother’s peony.”
Thus absolved, I shed my guilt about my yard full of ecological empty calories. I kept my hydrangeas, azaleas and roses but pulled out the truly bad stuff. I dug up the nandinas and replaced them with native winterberry holly, red chokeberry and maple-leaf viburnum. I removed the rose of Sharon and substituted American hazelnut and witch hazel. I uprooted the invasive viburnum and planted a native arrowwood viburnum in its place.
I also took a small step in the painful task of killing my beloved lawn. I used landscape fabric to smother about 400 square feet of turf. In its place, I planted a smattering of canopy trees (two white and two northern red oaks), understory trees (ironwood, eastern redbud), shrubs (wild hydrangea, black haw viburnum) and various perennials and grasses (Virginia wild rye, blue-stemmed goldenrod, American alumroot, woodrush, spreading sedge).
My 38 plants cost $439 at Earth Sangha. But these natives, adapted to our soil and conditions, don’t require fertilizer, soil amendments or, eventually, much watering. Over time, I’ll save money on mulch and mowing.
Reese: This one is so oft repeated and so very wrong. It depends on the plant, and it depends on the site. Plants in the wild require no input to succeed whether native or not because we have not messed up the soil and we have let the natural cycles of plant debris/decay improve the soil as it was meant to, creating a live, moist, interaction of microorganisms that work symbiotically to support the plant, which, btw has also been selected by nature for that site. It has absolutely nothing to do with origins. In fact, why would nonnative plants become “invasive” if they did not adapt as well or better than the native plants? I want to snort with laughter!
Millbank: Right now, my seedlings look pretty sad. Where once there were healthy lawn and vibrant shrubs, there is now mud and scrawny sprigs poking from the ground every few feet. I put up chicken wire to keep the kids (and me) from trampling them. The carcasses of my invasive plants lie in a heap on the gravel.
Condon: This statement supports my contention that ridding your yard (and, in the case of government, natural areas and parks) of “invasive” plants destroys habitat, leaving our wildlife high and dry. Follow the advice of Doug Tallamy, via Dana Millbank (and many others) and you make the environment far less hospitable to our wildlife by removing plants that supplied habitat NOW when our critters need it to survive.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: This description of Millbank’s ravaged garden is consistent with my 25 years of observing native plant “restorations” on public land. They all begin with destruction, usually accomplished with herbicides. The first stage of these projects is often described as “scorched earth.” Years later, there is rarely habitat comparable to what was destroyed. Colored flags usually outnumber plants.
Millbank: But in a couple of seasons, if all goes well, my yard will be full of pollinators, birds and other visitors in need of an urban oasis. Years from now, those tender oak seedlings, now 6-inch twigs, will stretch as high as 100 feet, feeding and sheltering generations of wild animals struggling to survive climate change and habitat loss.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: Destroying harmless vegetation contributes to climate change by releasing carbon stored in the living vegetation and reducing the capacity to sequester more carbon. Above-ground carbon storage is proportional to the biomass of the living vegetation. Destroying large, mature plants and trees releases more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the young plants and trees can sequester. Meanwhile, the climate continues to change and the native plants that Millbank prefers are less and less likely to be adapted to conditions. Native plant ideology is a form of climate-change denial.
Millbank: I won’t be alive to see it. Yet even now, my infant oaks give me something the most stunning cherry blossom never could: a sense of hope.
Conservation Sense and Nonsense: I feel bad for Dana Millbank. He has been successfully guilt-tripped into believing he has damaged the environment. He hasn’t, but destroying his harmless garden WILL damage the environment.
We hope he will find his way back to a less gloomy outlook on nature, which will outlast us all in the end. Altered perhaps, but always knowing best what it takes to survive. The way back from the cliff he is standing on is through a study of evolutionary change through deep time to appreciate the dynamic resilience of nature, which may or may not include humans in the distant future. Our message is “Embrace the change because change will enable survival.”
Suggested reading for those standing on the steep cliff created by nativism in the natural world: