Dr. Omer E. Sperry taught me, as a very young horticulturist (actually, a Cub Scout), that “a plant is native where you find it growing in nature.” I’ve never forgotten that little lesson, and it has kept me from making some very bad gardening decisions.My dad had the credentials. He grew up in Oklahoma and eastern Nebraska. His Ph.D. in botany was from the University of Nebraska, but his thesis research work was done in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. He and Mom moved to Alpine in the early part of the Depression, where he founded the biology department at the new Sul Ross State Teachers College. He continued his botanical research in the Chisos and Davis Mountains of West Texas, turning to (to use the title of his book) Plants of Big Bend.And from there, when I was only 2, our family moved to College Station, where Dad co-founded the range and forestry department at Texas A&M. For the next 30 years of his career, Dad was a range ecologist and weed control specialist for Texas A&M. Most would have said that he was a Texas-native-plant expert.At parties at our house, I was surrounded by his fellow professors, who spent the night talking about native plants they had come across in every corner of Texas. It was exciting for a young kid with a natural yen toward landscaping, and it taught me what a richly diverse state Texas is.Now I turn to my own career. My dad taught me to follow my heart and to do what I really enjoyed — that it would never seem to be work. That has evolved, over the past 43 years of living around DFW, into giving advice about the best plant selections for Texas landscaping. One of the topics that comes up very often centers on the use of native plants in our gardens. The conversation usually begins something like this: “Neil, I’m planting my landscape, and I want to use only native Texas plants,” (pause) “so I’ll have the best chance of succeeding.”Some of those people get fiercely defensive if I try to caution them that some of their choices may not be good ones. It soon becomes obvious that they’re going to plant whatever they wish, and that’s where I use another lesson I learned from my dad: patience. As a friend of mine once told her adult son in one of his crises, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” I run that thought through my mind as I wish the person well and step away.As I’ve been typing, I’ve been trying to figure ways to illustrate that simply using “native” as the main or only criterion in choosing your plants might be a mistake.In that light, it crossed my mind that I’m a native Texan, and I’m well adjusted to my life in North Central Texas. But as much as I love my home state, there are places and environments in Texas where I don’t think I’d be very happy. I hope nobody “transplants” me to any of those.However, I still like my old explanation of why I prefer not to use “native” as a major criterion in choosing my plants, and that is that if a plant is not native to the part of Texas where you live, there’s probably a reason.As one example, it’s probably too wet (at some times!) in the Metroplex for West Texas natives to survive, especially in our heavy clay soils. Sure, they can survive the dry times, but they’re intolerant of waterlogged soils.Or, on a 20-year average, it’s too cold here, which is why you don’t see Texas mountain laurel, desert willow or Texas sage growing wild locally. I’ve even seen photos of century plant agaves that froze in the recent ice storm.Perhaps it’s our alkaline soil. Indeed, that’s why you don’t see loblolly pines, dogwoods, sweetgums, bald cypresses and American hollies growing natively around the Metroplex. That particular line of soil demarcation is amazing. It can be just a few hundred feet wide. There are places in Hunt and Kaufman counties where Blackland soils abruptly change over to East Texas sands on the same pieces of property, and the native species change with it.So, now the big question. If you don’t use “native” as a major factor in choosing your plants, what would be better? And that answer is simple and logical. Use plants that are “adapted.” It really doesn’t matter whether the plant is native to a local hillside or to some other continent. What you want is something that will jump right in and contribute to your landscaping efforts without complaining. Your chance at success as a landscaping gardener will be greatly enhanced if you’ll use that one simple measuring stick to size up all of your plants: “How well is this plant adapted to the setting where I’m going to use it?”
Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.