In Defense of Hugh Raffles' "Mother Nature's Melting Pot"

In Defense of Hugh Raffles' "Mother Nature's Melting Pot"

Recently the Op-Ed by Hugh Raffles, Mother Nature’s Melting Pot, in the NYT has ruffled a lot of feathers in the gardening world. As I watched the reaction to it trickle through my social media channels I was really surprised with how negatively the opinion piece was received by gardeners. Some of the criticism of Mr. Raffles seemed to be centered on him not being a “real” scientist or even a gardener.  I didn’t see his premise that introduced (exotic?) species have merit to be that off the mark. I think the negative reaction that Mr. Raffles has received is due in large part to him trying to have real talk around something that gardeners, specifically proponents of native plants, are uncomfortable with. He led by comparing native plant supporters to the nativists and the anti-immigration crowd.  

THE anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, from draconian laws in Arizona to armed militias along the Mexican border, has taken many Americans by surprise. It shouldn’t — nativism runs deep in the United States. Just ask our non-native animals and plants: they too are commonly labeled as aliens, even though they also provide significant benefits to their new home. While the vanguard of the anti-immigrant crusade is found among the likes of the Minutemen and the Tea Party, the native species movement is led by environmentalists, conservationists and gardeners. Despite cultural and political differences, both are motivated — in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase — by the fear of being swamped by aliens.

The only thing I disagree with here is that he differentiates between the vanguard in groups like the Minutemen and native species movement. Sometimes they are one in the same, and while this may offend the reasonable members of the native species movement; this is a reality that not many are aware of. Back when I was prone to wasting my time arguing about politics on message boards I noticed what Mr. Raffles points out above. Prior to my participating in gardening forums online I was under the impression that everyone involved in gardening or conservation efforts was part of this large group of tree hugging, free loving hippies who just wanted to live and let live. Over the years I’ve come to learn that this is not the case. Like in the rest of America you can find opinions within the gardening world that you do not subscribe to. Gardening and environmentalism isn’t exclusive to Liberals and we have people whose beliefs span the political spectrum and may even offend you.  Take this guy for example, how do you go from being a backyard beekeeper who is involved with the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and other mainstream environmentalist groups to being what many consider the architect of the anti-immigration movement? Like Mr. Raffles writes, “nativism runs deep in the United States.” This isn’t the first time there’s controversy surrounding native plants and it will probably not be the last. 

Prior to meeting gardeners like Monica, Linda and Beth my interaction with proponents of native plants was solely online and those interactions always left a bad taste in my mouth.  I had no idea that the native plant vanguard held people who could be thoughtful in their discussions and make you see the benefits of native plants without denigrating you and your garden because of your plant choices. I’ve gone from avoiding native plants because I didn’t want to be associated with those kinds of people to someone who now will recommend native plants to others.

It is unfortunate that the native plant movement attracts self-righteous extremists, but it is a reality. A reality that will not go away by pretending like it doesn’t exist or shooting messengers like Mr. Raffles.  Last year after attending the Gold Coast garden walk and seeing the gardens of some very wealthy people I was pondering the role of money in gardening. I asked my network of gardeners on Twitter what plant brand said to them that the gardener was “rich.” I answered my own question by saying for me that would be Monrovia. The person who was handling the Twitter account for New York City Wildflower Week posted the following:

NYC Wildflower Week.png

This wasn’t what I asked, nor was it what I said. It lead to a days-long Twitter argument between me and the person handling this account where I tried to impress upon him/her why I found this “remix” of what I had said so egregious. It did no good and the person on the other end just stopped responding without apologizing for making it seem like I was slamming Monrovia.

I was helping man a booth by a local gardening organization at last year’s Green Festival Chicago when a man walked up to the booth and said: “I just wanted to thank you for having signs in English. I know you guys are Mexicans, and I appreciate that you’re using English because you’re in America now.” The girl who was sitting at the table with me is Indian.

Nativism runs deep in the United States.

Further Reading: NYT: Mother Nature’s Melting Pot. The Deep Middle: This Guy is An Idiot. Environment 360: Alien Species Reconsidered: Finding Value in Non-Natives. Landscape Journal: Jens Jensen, Native Plants and the Concept of Nordic Superiority.

UPDATE: It seems like we’re on the cusp of a trend. Gardening groups leave zoo over invasive species planting.

“Like” my garden page on Facebook. I treat my page more like a blog, with topics and events that I don’t get around to blogging here. Subscribe to my gardening videos on YouTube. Read my seed starting and seed saving tutorials on the MrBrownThumb blog.

Filed under: LOL Garden

Tags: Hugh Raffles, Native Plants


Leave a comment
  • A few years back, I was on the Ypsi Garden Walk with a close friend, who is well known in my town as a native/prairie plant enthusiast/volunteer/habitat restorer, and someone asked her whether she was a "native plant Nazi." She was hurt and I could see why. Someone was making negative assumptions about her, which were obviously based on experiences with other people. That is the problem when we generalize the actions of a few specific people we've had interactions with, or who are simply more vocal, to other members we see as belonging to the same group. So, yes, I am offended when someone implies that because I'm {insert thing here; in this case someone who likes native plants} that I'm also {insert other thing here, in this case xenophobic}. Sure, any generalization will fit for SOME people of ANY group, and let's call them out as INDIVIDUALS, with specifics, but let's not paint the whole group with the same brush.

    And, we really are losing some native species that can't compete with some non-native invasives, and yes, I'm actually bummed out about that. And yes, I hate emerald ash borer, garlic mustard, buckthorn, AND dame's rocket. The fact that the author didn't mention any of these, and got his details of aquatic invasives entirely wrong, makes me feel is is unqualified to make a parallel when he only understands half of the equation.

    Because what he is accusing people of (making assumptions based on ignorance) is exactly what he himself is doing.

    P.S. Remind me to tell you about some of my relatives and crocuses some day.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    I always thought that the "native plant Nazi" label was as a result of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, until I read about how real Nazis were all about the native plants. It is unfortunate that native plants attract so many freaks because some of them are really cool plants. Feel free to tell me about crocuses any time! They're my favorite hardy bulb.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Here's an article I'd like to get the full text of, but am too cheap to pay: The abstract expresses my problems with the faulty mental leaps in equating being pro native plants to being anti-foreigners.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    There's a similar Landscape Journal abstract linked above at the end of the post. They both seem to be a response article by Gert Groening and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahm, which you can read about in the linked Wikipedia page above.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Personally I felt equating human immigration with the importing of non-native plant species to be a ridiculously flawed argument. Considering that the non-natives (plants) he mentioned were primarily invasives which have wreaked havoc, I felt the article was polarizing and intended to stir the pot regardless of the facts.

    Personally I feel there's a place for native plants, cultivars and imported species in the garden as long as they play nice together. The hummingbirds love the fuchsias almost as much as the cardinal flowers here.

    There are plenty of invasive native species, or at least, they can be invasive in a garden environment, which isn't the same as a wilderness. I do my best, native, imported, or cultivar to keep the invasives out of the garden, and I'm sure not going to let the likes of Hugh Raffles invade my peace.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I've been thinking about your comment and I think I agree with you on the equating humans with "invasive" species. But I think it was necessary comparison for him to make in order to get his point across, even if he did kind of fail at it. I agree with you that there's a happy balance we can achieve with the plants we grow in our gardens.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    lots to think about here! I did have to shake my head at that comment thanking you Mexicans for your signs in English. ha!

  • In reply to wkspray:

    LOL, it's funny because the organization who I was helping out at that particular booth doesn't even employ any Hispanics or Latinos on a full-time basis. They do work in Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods, but it is by no means a Hispanic/Latino organization.

  • P.P.S. I'm not saying that racism/xenophobia isn't a real issue that I wish more people discussed openly... I was just addressing the aspect of why people would respond negatively to this article.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    I got it. It is understandable that people reacted negatively to the article. If he had highlighted some example or named-names it probably wouldn't have been received so poorly and made people feel defensive about being lumped in the the anti-immigration crowd.

  • P.P.P.S. Now you HAVE to come to Ann Arbor because meeting my friend and her restored prairie will change your life forever. Trust me.
    P.P.P.P.S. I swear I'm shutting up now.

Leave a comment