Many of us now think of native plants as the good ones, so shouldn’t we plant more of them? But there may be one problem with this, the “we plant”. If a plant is planted by a human, can we call it “wild”? If an area is filled with plants that humans planted can we call it a “natural area”? What is the definition of “natural”? Isn’t it something that came to be without being made or altered by humans, at least by those of us of the post-agricultural culture? Wasn’t “agriculture”, humans clearing of land of species they didn’t want, followed by them planting species they did want, the beginning of the end of nature itself, and the beginning of the decline of the diversity of our local communities of native plants?
Consider this case of a rare plant for the Seattle area, Collomia heterophylla – the Varied Leaf Collomia (which I have dubbed “Fuzzy Little Collomia”). This annual plant hadn’t been recorded in the Seattle area for years when I found some growing in West Seattle’s Orchard St Ravine in about 2003, after we had removed some Himalayan Blackberries from above the soil where their seeds were. They were waiting for some unknown number of years for some sun to spur germination. After I found those “Fuzzy Little Collomias”, those doing native plantings started covering the ground with wood chips and native trees and shrubs. If I hadn’t moved seed from that first generation of Collomia heterophyllas to start new local populations in similar microhabitats, there may not have been enough sun over that ground for another generation of those locally rare plants to germinate, flower, and set more seed.
If instead of clearing areas of weedy invasive plants then covering that surface area of ground with native plants species that we can get in a nursery (not to mention covering the surface area with wood chips that discourage most new wild growth), why not focus on clearing weeds away from our least common remaining native plants, in our best remaining natural areas, and both letting those wild native plants cover that adjacent surface area, while watching what additional native plants come in that we didn’t know might move in or sprout up. We would then be assisting Mother Nature with her planting, and the plants that came in would be both wild and natural. In addition to this we might move in some seed that was collected from wild sites that were ecologically similar, and physically not very far, but of species that seemed to be missing from a site, and see if Mother Nature would have them germinate, and grow and spread, or if they don’t quite do so, potentially teaching us something about problems for growing that material in that site at that time? Other than the addition of moving in seed, from remaining wild populations that are both physically and ecologically relatively close, this is what the Bradly Sisters taught in their book “Bringing Back the Bush”, about their method of helping the recovery Australian “bush”, which is what they call their natural community.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Native Plant Society’s Central Puget Sound Chapter newsletter “The Native Plant Press” October, 2017 issue: Print version (p. 8); Mobile version (p. 13)