May 7, 2011

Native Tree, Revisited

When I posted my tribulations about trying to find a native pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) to plant in a new border, I got many interesting comments, including frustration from others about trying to find native plants anywhere.

It really is discouraging for the gardener who wants to practice what Doug Tallamy proposes, or for anyone wanting even a few natives to attract indigenous wildlife and bugs.

Commenters offered sources where I could find a pagoda dogwood.

But I really waffled about planting one.

Because the simple fact is that I don't have a native environment.  There is nothing about a wide open sodded half acre lawn that resembles the woodland succession of trees and shrubs where native understory trees are happiest.  The pagoda dogwood I wanted is lovely, but apparently struggles out of its natural habitat, and I don't have its natural habitat.  I don't have anything close to its natural setting, and no one around here does.

Not many suburban yards look like this any more
Here in the northeast "native" is dense uninterrupted woodland and brush with isolated open clearings.  Not yards.

Nurseries don't want to carry problem plants that don't grow well for their customers, and some natives just don't do as well as the imports and cultivated hybrids that are bred for garden performance.

It's not that native plants are inferior or fussy or poor plants.  It's that we don't have a native environment to plant them in.

We treat our gardens as beds for isolated specimens so we can enjoy each flower, each bush, each conifer, vine and perennial for its own lovely merits.  But in nature's world things grow jumbled together, in a complex system, and even the leaf litter on the forest floor is a critical part of the whole system.  We carefully rake any leaves off the lawns that surround our man-made gardens.
Pagoda dogwood where it wants to be
Right plant, right place, sigh.  We rarely have the right place any more in our suburban yards and urban environments for the natives that used to be here.

We need to recreate it, and Tallamy tells us even one or two native plants in a yard can make a difference.  And I'm not giving up entirely!  But I am also aware that most nurseries are not going to carry plants that are the wrong plant for the wrong place, and many native plants are wrong for densely populated areas, no matter how much we want to "plant for the wildlife" or "recreate a natural setting".   

It may be a chicken and egg thing: until our human habitation is at least partially restored to dense woodland, scrub, succession plants and forest, we aren't gong to have the right place for some natives; but unless we plant the natives we won't ever get an approximation of our natural environment back!

Pagoda dogwood where I planted it

 So how did my attempt at planting a native tree work out?  I did find a lovely large specimen at Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, CT.  It's the straight species, not the somewhat fussier variegated or golden variety.

I bought, it, I planted it where it will get a little afternoon shade, and I'll try very hard to keep this native tree happy in my non-native man-made artificial garden.


  1. Such a very good post on native plants. It makes me consider where "home" is. I don't feel so at home in my new city of Austin. I'm not native! I don't recognize any of the TX flora whereas in California I feel right at home surrounded by the black oak and Torrey Pines and other recognizable growth. I have a history with it. I'm glad to hear that you found your dogwood. May it grow tall!

  2. Laurrie, good for you not giving up and finding the tree you want. Although Tallemy's book is sitting on my nightstand I still haven't cracked it open! Too much gardening to do and not enough reading time right now. I wish you the best of luck with your dogwood and the journey to create both a garden and native habitat.

  3. Laurrie, You and Tallemy bring up an excellent point. We always think of native as being our home state (or town or whatever). Trees, plants don't know what state their in. Aren't we funny? I drive on I-95 and see so many dogwoods growing in those stretches of woods that I see in the eastern part of the state. We went for a walk through our woods today and found dogwoods, bleeding hearts, Solomon's seal, lily of the valley, and all sorts of other things I can't name. THAT is native, and as you said, most of us don't have anything like that to call home. Your tree looks great in its spot and I'm glad you found one. I'm sure it will be very happy right where it is.

  4. The main problem with yards is the compacted soil.

    It's not that hard to re-create native habitat. Pioneer natives can grow anywhere. If a plant needs some shade and fluffy soil it's doable to create a small habitat for one plant.

    Lovely tree btw, hope it does well!

  5. Wise and well said! I'm glad you found your tree!! You may not have the perfect naitve environment, but I think you're on your way to recreating it the best you can. :o)

  6. I'm always trying to incorporate as many natives as possible but I'm not strict about the habit. I add when I can but sometimes a non-native (as long as it isn't invasive) will just work better. Glad you found a solution.

  7. Roberta, thanks. I know what you mean about the flora around you being "home". If I loved outside of New England I would be disoriented by the trees (or lack of trees!) any where else.

    Marguerite, This season is not reading season when the garden beckons. I hope you get to Tallamy next winter.

    Wendy, thank you. How wonderful that you have woods filled with natives to walk through!

    Sweetbay, I do hope I recreated the soil and shade and spot that this tree wants.

    TS, thanks, I hope this little tree thrives!

    Cat, My yard is full of both --- natives, and non-natives, and that is not a problem. On the back hill where I tried to recreate a forest that would have been there naturally, I did plant only native trees, but they are overwhelmed with the wild non-native invasive things that established there.

  8. Laurrie: Summer Hill Nursery in Madison, CT carries quite a few native plants and although they are wholesale, they may be able to give you names of a couple of their customers in your area. Their product is easily identifiable as it is planted in medium green, straight sided pots and the soil media is very heavy. Love your new pagoda dogwood. I have one also.

  9. Laurrie, What an excellent post. You are so right that as we strive to plant more native plants, we are doing so in an environment that is offering conditions that are no longer 'native'. But, as Doug Tallamy says, we need to start somewhere and every small step we take has a major impact.

  10. Layanee, thanks, I'd love to see a post on your pagoda dogwood to see what it looks like. And thanks for the wholesale nursery reference!

    Debbie, I agree... every step, even one native plant, is a step in the right direction to restoring what used to be here.

  11. I am very curious on how this turned out. I found your blog while looking for pictures of pagoda dogwood.

    1. This pagoda dogwood did not survive its first winter. Sigh. But I have since found another, a little larger specimen, and I planted it in a more sheltered, shadier spot near the edge of the woods this past spring. It already looks much better (leafier, fuller) than the first one, but we will see this winter if it survives.


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