What are native plants, how have they changed the landscape and should we use them in the residential landscape as “restorative plants”?

“The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Thomas Jefferson

The Darwinian approach of Natural Selection asserts that species adapt to various environments. Selection is the process by which the organisms that are best adapted to their environment tend to be the ones that survive to reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation, hence the term ‘survival of the fittest.’ The environment is the ‘genetic sculptor’ which can, over time, change the characteristics of the organisms within a population.

Panicum virgatum or Switchgrass is native to prairies, dunes, meadows, open pine woods, edges of freshwater marshes throughout most of North America.

When a garden designer chooses to plant a native such as this and specs one of it’s cultivars, Panicum virgatum “Dallas Blues” -- can that be termed artificial selection as opposed to natural selection?  Artificial selection is when it is not the natural environment selecting for certain traits, but rather when humans are manipulating the genetics of an organism by selectively breeding individuals that have the desired traits.  Is this considered “native” when botanists, plant breeders, nurserymen select, reproduce, distribute and promote a specific cultivar over another?  As a proponent of using native plants in the residential landscape maybe we should reconsider them as “restorative plants” instead of “native plants" at this point?

Panicum along the side of a road w. emergent seedheads.   Wikipaedia

Panicum along the side of a road w. emergent seedheads.  Wikipaedia

Panicum 'dallas blues' planted in residential garden, with it's bold wispy seedheads.  photo ©ToddHaiman2014

Panicum 'dallas blues' planted in residential garden, with it's bold wispy seedheads. photo ©ToddHaiman2014

As Tami Port writes in “Darwin, Evolution & Selection, “it is no different then when farmers who, each season, select only the seeds of the most robust corn plants to sow the next crop; the breeders who want a domestic animal to have certain characteristics (a flat-faced Persian cat, a high-yield dairy cow; the tiny canine Chihuahua) are each acting as the genetic shapers, selecting for the traits that they want to encourage from generation to generation.”1

It is a compelling, categorical debate implicit with moral and ethical issues.

Consider that many biological problems (ex: invasive species) got their start from human controls or human intervention.  It could be argued that the history of human civilization is the history of an attempted control over the landscape.  If we’ve altered the landscape physically, shouldn’t we expect the rest of our ecosystem to adapt in some way biologically? Is anything truly native or natural or is this all Darwinian? A further question to ask is that if we cannot restore these native ecologies how do we work with or manipulate these emerging ecosystems and spontaneous systems to better serve our present and future needs?

1. Darwin, Evolution & Selection, Survival of The Fittest, Biological Change & How Organisms Evolve: Tami Port

*top photo, Wikipaedia; bottom photo ©ToddHaiman2014