Saturday, April 07, 2018

Don't Bet Your Garden on Mike McGrath's View of Native Plants

By chance, while heading out to a March 31 workday to rescue some flowering dogwood trees from invasive porcelainberry vines at the Princeton Battlefield, I happened to turn on my car radio just as Mike McGrath, host of the You Bet Your Garden" show, was answering a question about native plants. Though I have respect for anyone knowledgeable enough to field questions on any and all aspects of gardening, and who can make the subject entertaining enough to sustain a radio program, McGrath also needs to know his limits, and plant ecology is one of them. He pretends to speak with authority about invasive species, when in fact he is simply passing along misinformation.

Below is a transcript of McGrath's answer, spoken in front of an audience at the Philadelphia Flower Show, with embedded critiques showing how he misleads audiences with his superficial knowledge, emotion-based arguments, and the creation of a despised "Other" that veers towards demogoguery, in direct contradiction of his live-and-let-live facade. His faux arguments are part of a genre that I have critiqued in detail online, most recently in a book review of Inheritors of the Earth in the professional journal, Biological Invasions.

QUESTION: ”My next question is if you could talk about the benefits of planting native species, as opposed to some of the stuff that you buy in big box stores that never seem to work.”

“This to me is a controversial topic."
Only one sentence into his answer and he's already sounding problematic. False controversy is used in climate change denial to suppress acknowledgement of its reality, and to delay action to solve the problem. As an example, an April 1 NBC Nightly News story about proposed rollbacks on fuel efficiency standards didn't even mention climate change--the primary motivation for the standards. Beware of the "controversial" label, particularly when controversy is artificially created and sustained with bogus arguments, like some that McGrath uses later in his answer.
"I know native plants are hot and I know there are people who treasure native plants, Doug Tallamy, I mean, of the University of Delaware who probably speaks here as much as I do, and he’s a great guy, and he has the proper native plant for every place," 
Give McGrath credit here for at least acknowledging the existence and expertise of Doug Tallamy, the entomologist whose research has contributed so much to our understanding of the deep interconnection between native plants and the insects they support. You can read whole books bashing native plant advocates, and see no mention of Tallamy. Though McGrath says Tallamy is successful and a great guy, he ignores the implications of his research, and refers to native plants as "hot" and "proper", as if they are a fad, or a dictate being imposed upon us from above.
"but I was just, again, reading a book, and the introduction reminded me, there’s a quote by Jefferson that no man can do more for his country than to introduce a new foreign plant to his farm. The brother gardeners, the founding gardeners, the people who really paved the way, created the idea that we think about horticulture and gardening in America, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Bartram, all these people they just wanted to throw every plant from every part of the world and see what would thrive here." 
Whoa! Bringing out the founding fathers to support a helter skelter, pell mell introduction of non-native species--that's a new one, to me at least. Here's Jefferson's actual quote, from the Monticello website: "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture." The website goes on to say that "Jefferson ranked the introduction of the olive tree and upland rice into the United States with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. A Johnny Apple seed of the vegetable world, Jefferson passed out seeds of his latest novelty with messiahinistic fervor."

There is, of course, no doubt that the nation's founding fathers had a deep respect for the importance of plants in our lives. It's not a fluke that the U.S. Botanical Garden stands within a stone's throw of the nation's Capitol building--a centrality that seems incongruous today, when the study of plants has become so marginalized.

Many plant introductions have proven useful for agriculture and horticulture, but we now know the risks. Jefferson spoke those words long before the nation's elms, chestnuts, and other species were decimated by imported diseases, long before the multiflora rose escaped cultivation to choke our forests with thorns. McGrath's argument is just one more way of pretending that science hasn't taught us anything about the importance of balance and deep interconnectedness of species in an ecosystem. Presumably, if Jefferson were alive today, he would not own slaves, nor would he be advocating for the unregulated introduction of new species into the country. People and societies are supposed to learn from their mistakes.
"So, native plants have a lot of benefits to native pollinators, but, the world has become such a small place. You probably aren’t going to find many corners of it where there isn’t a plant from every other continent growing in context with the other plants."
Here, McGrath makes no distinction between habitats where native flora have been largely displaced, and habitats where the native flora are largely intact, with minimal disruption from introduced species. There are gradations of disruption of ecosystems, but McGrath seems to think of the whole planet as having lost its virginity, so therefore there must be no indigenous plant communities of value left to preserve. 
"Now, I’m not talking about invasives. Obviously people shouldn’t plant invasives, but I also don’t see invasives being sold at garden centers much, unless you count Bradford pear, you know." 
Here, McGrath at least makes a distinction that is surprisingly hard for some to make. Not all introduced plants exhibit invasive behavior. Now, there are plants that don't begin exhibiting invasive behavior until long after they've been introduced. Unlike native species that have grown in a region for many thousands of years, an introduced species has no track record. Once they begin acting invasively, it's usually too late to stop their spread. Thus, the healthy skepticism towards introducing new species to an area.
"But you have to remember, poison ivy is a native plant. Virginia creeper, one of my most troublesome weeds, is a native plant."
Again, he makes the important distinction that invasiveness is a behavior. In my experience, native cattails can be very aggressive in a wetland. In a small wetland I take care of, we actually remove it so that other species can thrive. But it's also important to remember that the vast majority of invasive plants are introduced, not native. McGrath is obscuring this reality. Virginia creeper can be aggressive in a garden, but I've never seen it become a problem in nature preserves. 
"I know the evils of Japanese honeysuckle. I know what a bad person I am, because it appeared on the fence, in my yard, ten years ago, and my wife was out on the little balcony outside our bedroom one night, and she goes, “I thought the multiflora rose were all done blooming.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, they’re just a nuisance now.” And she said “What’s that amazing smell?” And I said, “That’s a bad plant. Would you like to taste it?” And she had never as a child gone out and drank the honey of the honeysuckle flower petal, and she goes “Explain to me that this is a bad plant. Why?” Well, supposedly no native butterfly can use it as a host plant, and while we’re out there, there’s like a dozen native bees fighting to get at every flower,"
First off, this is the classic cherry-picking approach. If a plant has one positive trait, or in this case two, then any negative traits magically become immaterial. Apologists for invasive species depend heavily on incomplete characterizations in order to make their arguments seem plausible.

McGrath told a similar story about his wife while praising multiflora rose. Invasive species like Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose thrive because the wildlife don't eat them. Their dominating displacement of the more edible native plants means that insects and other animals have diminished options for edible foliage, and even the pollinators feasting on the Japanese honeysuckle flowers will have few options for sustained nutrition once the dominant invasives stop blooming. At least McGrath mentions the need of butterflies for specific host plants, but that acknowledgement comes with a grudging "supposedly", and the story tells of the sinful pleasures to be had while enjoying plants we've been told are bad.

This concept of "good" plants and "bad" plants can hang people up. Here, McGrath has a nice moment with his wife, smelling Japanese honeysuckle and sipping its nectar, and resents having to think of it as a "bad" plant. Consider the possibility that the plant is good, that people are good, but that the main threat to the planet is too much of a good thing, that the balance of species, of CO2 in the atmosphere, and of the planet's capacity to process the biproducts of human activity has been thrown out of whack. 
"and I know there are nice native honeysuckles that are well behaved, that go to bed on time, listen to their parents, get 95s on their report cards, but at least when I was in college girls didn’t want to go out with those guys, you know."
Part of McGrath's popularity comes from his colorful personality and willingness to go big with his opinions, but here he can't help but veer into demogoguery, playing to the crowd at the Philadelphia Flower Show for laughs, while portraying native plants and the science that underscores their value as the sort of good boys and overachievers that the rest of us don't want to hang out with. In the process, he creates a despised "Other", in stark contrast to the pose of open-mindedness he then adopts in the next sentence:
"But, my personal feeling is, I see the good in every plant. I see every plant having some kind of purpose, and so I let almost everything grow on my landscape. If I deliberately tried to plant my landscape, it would look like Yellowstone after a fire, but instead I’ve learned to welcome the stranger, to see what this plant looks like as it grows up. Now, if it’s going to become a tremendously invasive problem, and it’s going to inflict, you know, harm on my neighbor’s property, then I pull it out. But I find that a lot of nonnatives have value,"
Yes, after impuning native honeysuckles as a bunch of boring, conformist, do-gooders that we don't want to spend time with, he then says he sees "the good in every plant." Radio show host, know thyself. This sort of hypocrisy is common in the native plant bashing genre, a hypocrisy most famously captured in the words of songwriter Tom Lehrer, "I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that."

The comment about "Yellowstone after a fire" threw me off. I thought at first he meant it as a positive, since fire in a relatively healthy, fire-dependent ecosystem like Yellowstone brings a flush of new and richly diverse plant growth. But more likely, he equates fire with a blackened and barren landscape, as it is portrayed, wrongly, in the news.
"and the saddest part, the saddest truth of what’s happened to this planet is a lot of native plants can’t survive because the climate they thrived in is gone."  
Though the speed of human-caused climate change is creating stress for plants and animals, it's also true that most plant species in the U.S. have very long vertical ranges, often stretching from Georgia up into Canada, across a broad range of hardiness zones. Here's one example, picked at random.
"You know, native when? Native a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago?"
The "native when" argument, like the view that ecosystems are either virgin or humanized, with no gradation between the two, betrays a dismissiveness towards co-evolution, in which species that live together for thousands of years can develop complex relationships of mutualism and symbiosis. 
But I also encourage people to try to support native plants and learn more about them, and for that I will send you to the work of Dr. Doug Tallamy, at the University of Delaware. He’s a genius in this regard. 
Again, credit McGrath for mentioning Doug Tallamy. McGrath could have saved everyone a lot of time by limiting his answer to this last sentence, and sparing the audience all his bias and misinformation.