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Grancy greybeard, Chioanthus virginicus, is a native plant that can be an excellent choice for the landscape.

By Sallie M. Lee

Question: It's April, and plant sales are everywhere. Seed catalogues, nurseries, public gardens, Master Gardener groups are offering a bewildering selection of plants for sale. So what is the deal about native, non-native, naturalized, hybridized, heirloom, exotic, invasive...? What do all these categories mean, and does it really matter?

Answer: In this space we can cover basic information, as there is substantial data and plenty of opinions for the reading.

And to further add to the conversation, for most gardeners and garden "experts," there is no right or wrong answer to which is best, with the possible exception of installing plant material listed as "invasive" for your region. That said, even from your garden in northeast Jefferson county to southwest Jefferson, the same plant can behave differently. That difference can be explained at least in part to conditions such as soil and microclimate, although other criteria play a role.

Now for the part that has the potential to cause the hurling of potted plants and the dissolution of gardening relationships because we lose sight of a larger perspective. Much as the subject of sports can bring out the best and worst of us, the use of native versus "other" plants can do the same. In fact, agreeing on the definition of "native" has become an argument in and of itself. Generally speaking though, native plants are those that occurred in North America prior to European settlement, and not from direct or indirect human influence. Even as scholarly a guide as "Gardening for Dummies" defines native plants as "those found naturally in a specific region or locality." The use of "naturally" excludes those brought in on purpose by humans (think kudzu), or those brought in accidentally by birds, deer, etc.

So, what about the "other" non-native, exotic, indigenous, naturalized, hybridized plants? And most plants we use in our landscapes are either native, native hybrids, or non-natives that have developed sustainable populations. We plant and enjoy many non-native species in our yards and gardens, including heirlooms and exotics. Using native plants that don't fit the site and its conditions can produce unsatisfactory results that are just as frustrating and expensive as removing those that like our property too well. 'The right plant in the right place' applies to native and non-native's alike, so be sure to match the plant's cultural needs to a location where it will thrive.

Before hitting the plant sales, do a little checking. The websites included here offer lists of plants that are or could be poor choices for our landscapes. The reason we don't have lists that are good choices? Because there are so many plants that exhibit desirable traits, we wouldn't have room for them if this entire page was dedicated to nothing else.

Therefore, these 2 sites represent the short list of plants with "questionable virtues": and for Alabama.

Get out, enjoy those plant sales, support participating nurseries and botanical gardens, while bringing additional color, charm, and comfort to your garden or yard.

Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research-based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A M University and Auburn University. Email questions to or call 205 879-6964 x11. Learn more about what is going on in Jefferson County by visiting the ACES website, or checking Facebook.

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