Nativism turns a blind eye to climate change

“Reflexive demonization of alien species ignores the beautiful but complex truth that nature fights to find a way—and for a planet navigating the pressures of climate change and overpopulation, that just might be our saving grace.” – Marianne Willburn, Garden Rant

Margaret Renkl writes an opinion column for the New York Times that I usually enjoy because she frequently writes about nature, often based on observations of wildlife in her own garden.  She lives in her childhood home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Much of her garden was planted with non-native plants and trees decades ago by her deceased mother.  Yet, in a recent column, Ms. Renkl blames non-native plants for a variety of crimes against nature. 

  • She suggests that non-native trees are blooming earlier than native trees, which she says has “skewed our experience of spring.”  She is apparently unaware that spring does indeed arrive earlier than it has in the past because of climate change.  Warmer weather arrives earlier, triggering the blooms of spring, not vice versa.  Both native and non-native plants are blooming earlier than they did in the past. 
  • She suggests that gardens planted with non-native plants are “blooming wastelands where the flowers feed nobody at all,” yet her columns are usually filled with the wildlife that lives in her own garden, with introduced plant species.
  • Although she does not use pesticides in her own garden, she believes that her neighbors’ non-native gardens require them to use pesticides that kill wildlife.  She says, “The typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.” She does not seem to know that most herbicide is used to kill non-native plants, not native plants nor does she seem to realize the contradiction in her indictment of gardening with non-native plants.  If there are more insects living in native gardens than non-native gardens, why would more pesticide be needed in non-native gardens?  If people could learn to love the clover, dandelions, and English daisies in their lawns as much as I do, they would use less “weed killers” on their lawns.

Ms. Renkl’s misperceptions about non-native plants seem to be based on a mistaken belief in their origins.  She says, “Ambulatory and omnivorous, human beings are a migratory species. That’s not true for the vast majority of plants.”  In fact, plants are just as mobile as animals, including humans.  Plants are carried by birds, animals, wind, ocean currents, etc.  They come and go as the climate changes, as it has many times in the past 500 million years that plants have existed on Earth.  Plants now considered non-native existed here in the distant past, in a different climate.  Here are a few examples of such dispersals; most occurred before humans even existed:

The ability to migrate is essential to the survival of plant and animal species.  As the climate changes, this survival strategy is quickly becoming even more important.  When we demand that plants be restricted to their historical “native” ranges, we doom them to extinction because when the climate changes, the vegetation must change.

Where did Ms. Renkl learn these myths?

Ms. Renkl’s cites Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope as one of the sources of her mistaken beliefs.  Tallamy considers the existence of non-native plants the root of all evil in nature.  He calls them “ecological tumors.” He blames non-native plants for declining populations of both native plants and insects, and by extension to declining populations of birds that eat insects. 

In Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy says, “…we must not use climate change as an excuse to do nothing.  Most species of plants and animals are far more resilient to climate variability than we give them credit for.  Besides, increasing the number and biomass of the plantings in our yards and public spaces is one of our most accessible and convenient tools to fight climate change.”  The problem with Tallamy’s dogma is that it inspires the public and land managers to eradicate established landscapes that are not native based on Tallamy’s claims that non-natives are “crowding out” native species and depriving wildlife of food. All native plant “restorations” begin by eradicating non-native plants, usually with herbicides that retard new growth.  In other words, the native plant ideology is causing the loss of vegetation and therefore the loss of stored carbon and the reduced capacity for carbon sequestration in the future.  The native plant ideology is not increasing biodiversity, nor is it “fighting climate change.”  It is more destructive than constructive. 

I’m not looking for “an excuse to do nothing.”  On the contrary, I believe every effort must be made to stop or at least slow down the inexorable advance of climate change.  The most basic effort we can make is to stop destroying functional vegetation, especially trees.  Then, there is a lengthy list of what we should be doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is another, equally important topic. 

Native plant advocates consider climate change irrelevant because they believe the existence of non-native plants is the sole culprit of all problems in the environment.  They see every environmental issue through the narrow lens of their dogma.  This comment on an article about the value of non-native plants by Marlene Condon published in [Chesapeake] Bay Journal is an example of such a misinterpretation of an environmental issue:

“English ivy is an evergreen, non-native, invasive groundcover that has demolished undisturbed natural areas…In salmon country that’s the difference between clean, cold streams and warmer streams filled with sediment.”

Eradicating ivy on stream banks is likely to produce more sediment because it will take some time for replacement vegetation to cover the ground, especially if herbicides are used to eradicate the ivy. Water is warmer in streams because of climate change and because there is less water due to water diversion and droughts. There are many other reasons for declining populations of salmon, particularly dams that prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.

Treat the cause, not the symptom

The native plant ideology ignores the underlying causes of changing ecosystems. Most changes are caused by the activities of humans, such as agriculture, development, water diversion, and pesticides.  Climate change is the underlying cause of some changes in nature and it will steadily become a more important factor.  Eradicating non-native plants will not reverse any of those changes nor will it prevent changes in the climate.    


  1. Alan de Queiroz, “The resurrection of oceanic dispersal in historical biogeography,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20 No. 2, February 2005

Photo credit for featured photo: Garden Rant, Marianne Willburn