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A BEAUTIFUL DIATRIBE?
on March 2, 2016
This isn't the review I wanted to write. I loved Swift's first two books, and I've followed her blog for years. I pre-ordered this book, and I squealed with delight when I got the e-mail from Amazon telling me the book had shipped. I expected to love this book.
And, in fact, with the first pass through it, looking at the paintings, I did love it. The paintings are exquisite. 5+ stars. I also liked the fact that the book included several hidden gem gardens. But all that came to a screeching halt with pages 40-41, where the author tars native plant enthusiasts with broad strokes. It's important to understand I'm not quibbling with the inclusion of the story about the Australian pines. That story lends itself to a serious consideration of the native vs non-native debate. However, I am dismayed by the bias of the quotes refuting the legitimacy of any focus on native plants.
The issue of native vs non-native is MUCH more complex than just the one story included here. Having been in the native plant milieu for over 20 years, I know that the enthusiasts run the gamut from zealots (exclusion of all non-natives and only wild genotypes from within a 50 mile radius are acceptable) to those who are fine with cultivars of natives and any native that will grow in a given spot. Most native plant people distinguish between problematic (invasive) non-natives and non-problematic ones. Most are like me in planting annuals and including non-problematic non-natives in their gardens.
More troubling is the failure to include mention of the plethora of research that has found a reduction in diversity when non-native plants dominate. Since one of the articles cited on page 40 is a New York Times article which quotes a study from UC Davis, I contacted a friend who has a PhD in zoology from UC Davis and who owns a native plant nursery in upstate New York. He quickly responded that the issue was so HUGE it would take him a while to craft a response, but in the meantime he pointed to a more recent (3/11/15) Times article by Doug Tallamy. The how & why of the difference in diversity is discussed in this article, pointing to how birds are adversely affected by this lack of diversity, a finding that seems to be well supported by research. Some non-native plants do outcompete native ones. States determine which plants are invasive, based on observation of their impact on 'natural' areas. The failure to include this type of information seems irresponsible to me. (7/2/16 UPDATE: [...])
The failure to acknowledge the complexity of the native plant issue also led to missed opportunities in the book. For example, the chapter pointing out the similarities between Eastern U.S. was interesting, but it failed to connect this fact to the fact that many of the non-native plants that are considered invasive are from Japan.
It pains me that these oversights/exclusions lower value of this beautiful book.