By Walt Harrison


I thought about entitling this month’s article “If you were born in Rockmart, you can’t call yourself an Atlanta native just because you live here now.”
Let me explain. Last week I visited a large plant growing operation near Lavonia, Georgia. This operation grows hundreds of thousands of plants to supply landscapers and garden centers in the South and up the Atlantic coast. This is a well-run production facility with a tremendous marketing program, but what I found most remarkable was the large number of southern native plants this nursery produces.
This got me to thinking about native plants. The southeastern United States, with its temperate climate, is home to many unique and beautiful plants; plants that were growing here when Europeans colonized the southern states.
The great explorer John Bartrum and others began documenting our native flora in the 1700s. Plants were shipped to collectors in Europe and colonists began recognizing the ornamental, culinary and medicinal value of our southern natives. And while gardeners and horticulturists have always valued these plants, about 20 years ago a renewed interest in native plants swept through the horticultural community with what I would call an almost religious fervor.
More than a few plant people were advocating that we only allow native plants to be used in our gardens and landscapes, and that we do away with all our exotics (that is, plants from other parts of the world).
The primary argument given for going exclusively native is that native plants have evolved over time to thrive in our southern environment and, therefore, would not need the level of care and resources that plants brought in from other parts of the world would need. Native plants assumed an almost mystic quality to many horticulturists, landscapers and gardeners. If the plant is native, it must be better.
Now, I like native plants just fine, but I’m not sure the idea that native plants are better and more adapted to our region really flies. Let’s talk about what being a native really means.
Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea) is one of my absolute favorite plants. Never met one I didn’t like. Snowflake, Snow Queen, Pee Wee, Alice, etc. – I like them all. Plant folks will tell you that Oakleaf hydrangeas are native plants, but I live in metro Atlanta and I’ve never seen an Oakleaf growing in this area that was not planted by somebody or came from seed from a plant that was brought into the landscape. Oakleafs naturally occur in west Georgia and eastern Alabama and other areas but not around here. So for us, it’s no more native than someone from Chattanooga who now lives in Atlanta, but it grows just fine here.
Many of our native plants are site specific. Temperature, altitude, humidity and soil types affect the ability of the plant to survive and reproduce, so what might be native to the mountains of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee might not be native to the Atlanta area.
On the other hand, Georgia’s temperate climate is similar to that of Japan’s and other parts of the world. This makes it possible for Georgia gardeners to grow a wide variety of beautiful and interesting plants. Those incredible azaleas that bloom during the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta originated in India and Japan.  These azaleas, called Indicas and Karumes, have been planted in the south for so long, they have literally become part of our southern heritage. They may not be native but they certainly thrive here. When someone tells you that a particular plant is a native, you might ask, “Native to where?”
Speaking of natives and azaleas, one of my favorite native plants is the Canescens Azalea (Rhododendron canescens). This plant and other varieties of native azaleas can be found growing naturally around the metro area. The ones in my neighborhood will be flowering with beautiful, fragrant pink blooms in late March or early April. Canescens Azalea gets large (8’ to 10’) and is deciduous (loses its leaves in the winter) and because the bloom looks and smells like the honeysuckle flower, Canescens is often called wild honeysuckle but it’s not. It is a true azalea.  Give this plant rich soil, adequate sunlight and a little room and it will be a joy and prize in your garden for years to come.
Canescens Azalea, other natives and a whole world of other beautiful and wondrous, well-grown plants can be found at your local independent garden center this spring.

Walt Harrison is the owner Habersham Gardens, 2067 Manchester St. For more, visit habershamgardens.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.