Systems of dominance
Unpicking the ‘native’ myth, by Gareth Richards
Last night I was catching up with a recorded Zoom talk given by Riane Eisler over on Advaya as part of their Bodyfulness course. She was talking about social systems based on dominance, systems that just about all of us currently live under. And isn’t that the nub of so many of the justice issues that we see needing urgent address today? Often, the problems we face (both individually and collectively) are social problems stemming from a hidden system of values based on dominance. From racism, to sexism, to homophobia and transphobia, to the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, to grind culture, to male violence and more: these issues are all linked and they all have a common thread of being intrinsic to systems built on domination.
Eisler listed four cornerstones that we ought to pay attention to as we try to work towards a different kind of society built on partnership rather than domination and one of those cornerstones was story and language (the other three were childhood, gender and economics). Anyway, I suppose the point of this story (besides directing you to Riane and also Advaya, who are doing such important work) is how much it struck me that we keep coming back to the same core things and how everything is interconnected. And it was validating that we must keep challenging, interrogating, questioning what we think we know and how we see, feel and process what we have been told is truth. I have not read and was not previously familiar with Riane’s work, but I’m looking forward to reading this.
We have talked about story and language in this newsletter before - for example, when it comes to “nature” and “weeds”. In today’s newsletter Gareth Richards takes a look at how we use and value the terms “native” and “non-native” in reference to plants. Such a topic may seem innocuous to some, but not to those of us who can sometimes be made to feel unwelcome or as though we don’t belong in places where we have every right to be. And, as I hope we are coming to understand, the language, stories and narratives we hold and reinforce can have deeper significance and far-reaching consequences - particularly when it comes to perpetuating systems of dominance that would benefit us all to move away from.
“What we really have to understand is that so many of the stories we have been told are false.”
~ Riane Eisler
Unpicking the ‘native’ myth, by Gareth Richards
Many ecologists, environmentalists and horticulturists seem to be suffering from the sort of nationalism that leads to blindness in a crisis. The fallout damages both people and planet.
The local authority has re-planted my street in a small English city with rowans (Sorbus aucuparia) and this makes me really cross. Don’t get me wrong, I love trees, and street trees in particular – but I find it infuriating that so many people in charge of municipal plantings seems to suffer from a kind of horticultural xenophobia.
Our local authority’s planting policy is ‘natives-first’. Never mind that in England Sorbus aucuparia is an upland, cool-climate plant that hasn’t been native to this corner of East Anglia for millenia; it is poorly equipped to deal with summer droughts we have now, let alone the more severe ones we’re forecast in future.
How lovely would those streets be if they were planted with smart evergreen Ligustrum lucidum (Chinese privet) or colourful Lagerstroemia (Indian crepe myrtle)? Instead we have short-sighted plantings of short lived plants that are doomed to live miserable lives in our changing climate.
The idea that native plants are somehow superior to non-natives, and that if we want to save the planet we should only be planting native species needs some serious re-evaluation, particularly within a British context.
Examining the concept of ‘native’
Firstly, the very definition of native has some fundamental flaws. In the UK we generally accept a plant as native if it has been present on these shores since the Neolithic period, approximately 8,000 years ago. The land bridge to continental Europe was flooded by rising sea levels, and our collective consciousness pulled up a drawbridge too, disallowing the fact that nothing in nature is constant and plants’ natural ranges shift continually in response to a range of factors. Not least among them being changes in climate.
Since I wrote my dissertation in 2004 [about the impact of non-native plants on landscape character in the UK], climate change has gone from being an abstract future threat to a daily reality. According to some studies, we’re effectively heading south at 40ft a day.
The effect on plants and animals has been remarkable. Many British butterflies have expanded their ranges hundreds of miles northwards, along with birds, bees and scores of other winners in this Anthropocene age. Plants are inevitably much slower, although some such as the tiny, wind-blown seeds of Serapias orchids from southern Europe have managed incredible feats of migration, arriving of their own accord in both 1989 and 2018. Yet their ‘native’ status is still seemingly up for debate.
Conversely no one seems to debate the native status of small-leafed lime (Tilia cordata) in Britain. It’s thought that here it stopped reproducing by seed with climatic cooling around 5,000 years ago. Yet limes live on in ancient woodlands across the country, pollarded and coppiced into stumps and stools with almost infinite lifespans, as long as they’re maintained by man. These processes are every bit as ‘artificial’ as importing new species. The natives debate is full of contradictions.
The spectre of pests and diseases adds real urgency to the debate about how we treat non-native plants. Elms have largely fallen, ash is following suit and the future of native oaks hangs in the balance. Promoting diversity is the only answer.
A truly pluralistic outlook reaps many rewards. We can look to not just new species but hybrids too. Hybrids of native Quercus robur with Turkey oaks (Quercus cerris) resist oak processionary moth and summer drought better than ‘pure’ native stock. They potentially might not be quite as good for our (current) wildlife as the native, but you don’t plant trees for today, you plant them for tomorrow: a live tree captures much more carbon and is generally much more use than a dead or dying one. Alternatively we could import oak seed from central southern France, where Q. robur already deals with these threats to some degree.
The idea of ‘climate analogues’ is a useful one: if we look to places that today have the climate we’re predicted to have in future, such as the mountains of Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus, a rich palette of trees opens up. I for one would rather see flourishing planted forests of zelkovas, Celtis and oriental hornbeam than dead and dying natural stands of beech and ash. The one thing we don’t want to be doing if we want future-proof forests is to be planting only local native seed.
But what about the non-natives we already have? Aren’t they causing irreparable damage to ecosystems and our precious countryside? The simple answer is ‘no’. In the UK, non-native plants are far, far more likely to grow in disturbed and damaged habitats, the ‘ecological vacuums’ created by humans than they are to invade more ‘natural’ environments. Sycamores are working hard to fill the tree void left by the departure of ashes and elms. Buddleias do a fantastic job of turning derelict buildings into butterfly havens – and they’re not just one-dimensional nectar sources: a remarkable array of native invertebrates now feed on their leaves too.
Of course, there are instances where non-native plants do cause genuine problems. Rhododendron ponticum is perhaps the ultimate villain in this regard, as it is able to invade pristine ancient woodlands. Which seems strange given the general proclivities of non-native plants – until you realise it was formerly native in previous interglacial periods. It’s also merely filling a gap in our indigenous flora: we have no large broadleaf evergreen native shrubs. Fortunately, initial booms such as the one currently being experienced by Rhododendron ponticum are often followed by busts as the plants settle down and find an equilibrium – as was the case with Canadian pondweed, Elodea canadensis, which plagued Britain for a few decades in Victorian times.
Time and time again, non-natives are vindicated. Another bête noire, Himalayan balsam, has been widely blamed for causing riverbank erosion, as its vigorous growth suppresses other plants before dying away in winter, leaving exposed soil vulnerable. Yet recent studies have suggested that it is simply a coloniser of naturally unstable habitats, so rather than causing problems it’s just making the most of a difficult situation. Its luxuriant growth and abundant late-season pollen and nectar bring beauty and utility to bleak post-industrial waterways.
In Britain our wild flora has been more than doubled thanks to the activities of man. Some of these non-natives have been here long enough to become cherished emblems of the countryside, their foreign origins obscured by familiarity and the mists of time. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that not a single native plant species has been lost due to the presence of non-natives.
Xenophobic by nature
Botanical incomers enrich the fabric of our nations, and their roles will become ever more valuable in a future dominated by changing climates and shifting pathogens. Our collective failure to appreciate this points to wider societal issues. Sadly xenophobia is alive and well even in the ‘caring’ world of nature conservation, where sneers about ‘invasive non-natives’ often take on a human tone. Yet it is rarely considered how this use of language makes those who might also see themselves (or be perceived) as ‘non-native’ feel.
Some scientists may not care, but they should. Consensus is building that we have created a new epoch in Earth’s history, the Anthropocene, where humans are the most pervasive force in nature. We are part of nature, currently a sadly overriding force of nature, but also just another species among many. So to divorce ourselves from the natural world and not accept the changes we have wrought is both pointless and futile. To demonise entire groups of plants is simply unacceptable, and should be seen for what it is; a thinly veiled cover for endemic, systemic racism.
Our double standards are galling. In gardens, many non-indigenous plants such as roses and wisteria are well-loved, their origins erased and they’re considered “English”. Yet as soon as they jump the fence they become labelled “non-native” which then becomes synonymous with “invasive” “threatening” and “unwelcome”.* And then they ‘pollute’ our ‘pure’ countryside – which itself is an outrageous myth.
Looking to the future
Imagine a Britain populated solely by ‘native’ plants. Gone are the thickets of Japanese knotweed along railway tracks, no more buddleia sprouting from cracks in buildings. No more games of conkers on village greens and no longer would the shapely boughs of Lebanese cedars shade the lawns of stately homes. Farewell cornflowers, corncockles and field poppies. I think it’s fair to say it would be a less green and less pleasant land.
Our world has changed irrevocably. There is, sadly, almost no untouched nature left. We need to hold on tight to the reins as our Anthropocene carriage speeds up, rather than throw ourselves under its wheels to try and stop it from moving at all.
(*to quote Claire Ratinon: ‘this reinforces the narrative that to be from somewhere other than here, and to come here, is inherently threatening.’)
Gareth Richards is a trained horticulturist and writer. He works on the RHS website, podcasts and The Garden magazine and is author of Weeds - The beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants. You can find Gareth on Instagram @thegrrdener.
Gareth donated this article to Radicle.
Photo credits: Gareth Richards