Recently, a blunder was brought to my attention. While this won't be the last time I stand corrected (I don't think I ever sat down in high school), it did bring to light an interesting question. In an earlier column, I referred to nandina as a native plant. Wrong. Nandina isn't native to South Carolina. But then again, what is?
I did a search for native plants in South Carolina. Naturally, the most logical Web site was the S.C. Native Plant Society (www.scnps.org). While the site was very informative, I could not find a definitive list of native plants. Nor could I find a definition of what exactly makes a plant native.
What does it mean to be native? Does it mean the plant originated in South Carolina? If you go back far enough, scientists contend there was one large continent called Pangaea. Is that too far back? Probably. So just how long does a plant need to grow in the region to be considered native?
Defining your terms
Some sources claim a native plant is one that has grown here for thousands of years. I contacted Bill Stringer, president of the S.C. Native Plant Society. His definition of a native plant is that it's one that was growing in the region prior to European settlement. I found that others agreed with his definition since this was about the time Europeans started introducing new plants. If your history is rusty, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, so we're talking about plants that have been here about 500 years.
Armed with a reasonable definition, all I needed was a list of plants. I don't know what was growing here in 1492.
After a lengthy search, I found a list at the U.S. Department of Transportation (www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/rdsduse/sc.htm). It wasn't as complete as another list I recently obtained, but they both had one thing in common: Neither listed nandina.
Why go native?
So what's the big deal with natives? Your answer is along the highways where forests are being mauled by kudzu, a non-native vine. Not all non-native (exotic) plants are invasive, but plants such as kudzu, Chinese wisteria and Japanese honeysuckle are everywhere because they have few to no natural predators, such as diseases and insects.
(Did you know there is a native wisteria, Wisteria frutescens, which is much less aggressive?) Currently, cogongrass is considered Public Enemy No. 1, with the potential to overrun forests, farms and rights of way.
The real danger is that invasive plants crowd out native plants and alter the balance of our ecosystem. For a list of invasive plants, go to www.scswcs.org.
The native plant debate can become very heated. Garden centers thrive on new introductions with bigger and brighter features, and this often means non-native plants. There are numerous cultivars of Japanese maples, clumping liriope and big-leaf hydrangea, all popular exotic plants, that are noninvasive to the Lowcountry.
Some popular exotics, however, should be eliminated. The Bradford pear is a homeowner favorite, but it has serious structural problems, and now there are concerns that nonsterile forms of the tree could become invasive.
Think about it: Pear trees everywhere that break in half after 30 years. Wonderful.
That brings me to the hardiness of native plants. A native plant grows in harmony with other plants in the ecosystem, providing food for birds, insects, fungi and a variety of other organisms. It is well-adapted to the region's growing conditions, our temperatures and humidity in particular.
Like many states, South Carolina has a broad range of climates. This includes the coastal plains, mountainous regions and the Piedmont, so a South Carolina native plant does not necessarily thrive throughout the state.
The "native" label does not mean the plant is bullet-proof. Red maples have numerous problems. Silver maple is even worse. Sweetgum drops the spiky balls. Not all natives, therefore, are desirable for the home landscape. As with any plant, do your research, plant it properly and put it in the right location.
Willow oak, wax myrtle and sweetgrass are some of my favorite natives. That doesn't mean they won't have problems. Native plants do have a few pests, but that's a good thing.