Sunday, August 30, 2020

Floria Permaculture Garden Plants, Edible Natives and/or Edible Imports

Florida Permaculture and Native Plants, Kudzu

 I am way in over my head with this blog post and not only that, this article has become way too long and turned into the never ending writing project.  What started out as a brief attempt to put down in words why I think Florida native plants are an important addition to our garden turned into an exercise that uncovered so many questions I had not before given a whole lot of consideration.  At one point I asked myself if the post discussion was even relevant, for I too could be considered an invasive species; one capable of inflicting critically detrimental impacts on our native ecosystems.  Struggling to address all the questions that kept popping up my writing and research became almost too laborious. I find myself needing to learn so much more of the subject matter.

Even post decades of Florida plant work, defining what constitutes a native plant is still difficult for me.  For discussion’s sake here I am assuming a Florida native plant is one that existed here long before European explorers arrived.  

Finally, after about four weeks of writing I am beginning to see my own world view about this matter begin to take form and evolve into slightly clearer, but still numerous, issues.  I am sure there are hundreds of other articles written about the native or exotic plant in the permaculture garden.  My attempt here is non-scientific and just the perspective of a plant person with a moderate level of botanical knowledge but a high level of inquisitiveness.  Enjoy the read.

One of the most conflicting decisions one may face in deciding what to include in their garden is, ‘should I choose native plants, non-native horticultural plants, or a combination of both’?  The questions concerning native plant and non-native species are not always easily answered.  Sometimes the simple pleasures of planting a food producing seed may seemingly become lost in confusing and eternally circular analyses of world-view issues. Many wonder why ethics and sustainability discussions should even be part of the consideration when it comes to planning, installing and growing a garden.  Why not just enjoy all plants, regardless of which continent or lab they come from?

Many of the permaculture gardens I see today grow interesting and productive food and medicinal plants originating from countries all over the world.  In fact the perspective of some gardeners seems to be one of - ‘the more exotic the plant list, the more smartly evolved the garden’, with comments often including, “here, let me show you this plant from Asia (or South America, Australia or Europe).

Differing and many times passionately exclusive opinions exist for all of these approaches.  I would like to briefly examine the benefits and potential downsides of each approach here and then hand over personal decision making power to back the gardener.  Understanding the different schools of thought on the topic of natives and non-natives in the permaculture garden broadens our own perspectives and can provide us with valuable decision making insights.

Two good principles here to begin with are: first, grow what you can to feed yourself and your family and secondly, do no harm.  Sometimes there will be conflict between these two principles.  The stark reality of immediate survival demands we forage-grow the food we need to feed ourselves and our families, right now; no matter where it comes from or the long term cost, especially if food is not available in the grocery mart and our dependants are hungry.  

On the other hand, this ‘future be damned because we have to eat now’ approach will only make life more challenging for those who come after us.  Providing consideration for future generations does come at a present cost, one that includes minimizing our own immediate natural resource use through conservation.  Interestingly, there exist convincing arguments in support of providing consideration for future generations as being actually necessary to facilitate further replication of our DNA.  The mindset of leaving this earth a better place for our descendants is seemingly not only ethically congruent but positive too from an evolutionary selective perspective.  Leave the grandkids a better world planted with productive and ecologically beneficial plants and they may stand a better chance of survival; thus our legacy continues, at least for a while.  But do people really care about what happens here on the earth after they pass?  

Back to the plant decision discussion; first and foremost we have to survive.  This means working with and co-opting plants to achieve food and shelter is a necessary activity.  From a human perspective, it is only when immediate food supply and shelter are securely available that we find ourselves in a position to truly consider the future.

From a practicality and efficiency perspective, plants producing considerable amounts of fruits and vegetables should comprise the majority of our permaculture gardens.  But this last statement is an oversimplification of vastly complex issues.  The main premise of a survival food garden may be that one should plant crops which produce the most output for the least input, no matter if the crops are native, non-native, gmo or open-pollinated.  From a survival perspective, optimal garden production and efficiency are boss.

One analogy here I always think of is the history of air pollution in some of the major cities around the world.  During the winter seasons many poorer families burned coal to stay warm.  Coal was the least expensive and most readily available home heating fuel for centuries.  Someone with a shivering family was not going to hesitate to burn coal because of air pollution if burning the coal means keeping their family from freezing, even if it caused long term, future air pollution issues.  The same principle applies to growing highly productive gmo or invasive food plants today.  What do long term effects really matter if one needs to feed their family right now?

However, we must also ask the question, ‘is optimal garden efficiency’ measured by days, months, years, decades or generations?  Accordingly we can pose a similar question about sustainability.  Is the concept of sustainability relative to our lifetimes or is sustainability defined not through a lifetime but through many generations?  The politically correct answer is that sustainability should be judged through generational impacts.  Practically speaking though most of us gardeners are really, when it comes right down to it, interested in how our gardens look, produce and perform this season.  Who cares about one hundred years from now?

Yet perhaps, sustainability can be accomplished through modalities we can think of as ‘gifts to our descendants’.  These gifts to our descendants can include; clean water and air, stable climate conditions, biodiversity, organically grown fruit trees and vegetables, accessible knowledge and information bases, open pollinated seeds, non-gmo and non-IP restricted plants, toxicity free land, permaculture friendly land use regulations, community gardens and growing areas and so much more.  By considering sustainability as a bequeath we willingly pass to our children and children’s children we may be removing some of the guilt-based reasons for avoiding highly productive but potentially invasive garden plants.

Leaving the earth a better place for future generations honestly may cost us the opportunity to use up natural resources such as rain forests, wide open native grasslands or arctic tundra today while we have the opportunity for our here and now accumulation.   Then the question arises, ‘are those resources we want to use up really ours to use in the first place?’

Much of the resource use question can be readily answered if humans would take only what their basic needs require and thereafter work to conserve, recycle and sustain.  As we’ve suggested here, once people’s food, water and housing security are established, planning for future generations and long term sustainability is a much more easily accomplished task.  However, the Homo sapien drive to accumulate and hoard while minimizing ‘sharing’ serves to exert antagonist pressures against future earth health.  Granted it can be ‘fun’ and a boost to our self ego to accumulate toys, and to grow all those eye-popping exotic, non-native garden plants, but what is the true cost?

OK, where are we going with all this ethics discussion and what do these principles have to do with choosing between native plants and then non-native horticultural plants?  Well, quite a bit actually so lets stay on track. 

Once humans established food and shelter security and developed small scale agriculture, some developed the world gardening view of ‘do no harm’ in plant selection. Much of this ‘do no harm’ agriculture was based on learned first hand experience of what plants grow best and produce most.  Over time it had become obvious that some exotic plants grew so rapidly without apparent natural controls that they overtook all other plants and even displaced native wildlife.  Melaleuca, kudzu, wisteria, cogon grass and Australian pines for example became monocultures across thousand acres of lands, rendering the ground unusable and leading many to question the uncontrolled practice of non-native plant import.  The harm non-native plants can inflict has been well and thoroughly scientifically documented in other venues.

Other exotic plants have proven manageably useful, such as oranges and sugarcane (note the difference between planting non-natives across thousands of acres compared to aggressive plants spreading themselves in an uncontrolled fashion across the terrain).  Species that delivered immediate benefit yet became clearly problematic over time raised questions about immediate and future ecosystem impacts.

So the question arises, how do we know if an exotic plant will benefit or hurt the local community?

A good place to begin reconciling the native or non-native plant conversation is by first learning about our local community biota. When we come to know what is now growing in our local environment, natives and non-natives alike, we can better understand our own garden ecosystems and how they work.  This background data may be thought of as a beginning reference point for making educated decisions about purchasing (or trading for) and planting new species into our landscapes.

An appropriate understanding of what plants are growing and where within our local ecosystems can be learned in a number of ways, including; field observations and recordings, scientific databases, local master gardeners, nursery staff, farmers, native plant society members and other horticultural, botanical and agricultural interests.  In many ways, getting to know your local plants is truly as important as getting to know your local neighbors. 

Personally I recommend visiting surrounding natural areas, parks, plant greenhouses, community gardens, farms, botanical gardens and permaculture operations.  Some may be marginally productive and others highly efficient, such as in small, sustainable organic permaculture farms.  Each will probably have their own baseline native plant communities be they remnant or by design.  While permaculture farms can teach us about horticultural and agricultural species, many times state parks and natural areas are a great resource for the study of native flora.  All of these destinations will probably have their own assortment of horticultural and non-native plants as exotic plants can be persistent when it comes to spreading their DNA.  Our ultimate goal should be to understand how introducing new species in our local ecosystem may affect the existing baseline native plant species diversity, and then decide if the impacts may be positive, harmful or unknown. 

An important idea to consider here is that once we bring in an exotic, non-native plant into an existing complex ecosystem model we can’t be sure until time runs its course just how this new variable will affect the overall functioning of the existing system. I am always reminded of the ‘butterfly effect’ syndrome.  The ‘butterfly effect’ simply proposes that if one travels back into time eons ago and their timeship lands on and kills a small butterfly-like creature, that upon returning to the present, because of the butterfly’s death a chain of events has occurred where the present is now a completely different place than it would have been.  Kudzu infestations began just over a hundred years ago when someone brought a small number of plants to the Americas from Asia for erosion control of over-farmed lands.  Likewise, it is hard to predict if a packet of new to the area seeds from across the ocean could feed the neighborhood or instead, invade the land in the same runaway manner as cogon grass. 

As discussed above the best way to judge exotic plants on a native ecosystem is to be able to have an understanding of both.  Know your natural areas and their ecosystems.  Research your local urban and agricultural flora.

Another guiding mantra that is applicable in plant selection decisions is the approach of consistency.  It is important we are consistent in all our daily life actions when compared to our permaculture gardening efforts.  For congruity’s sake, our grocery lists should be reflective of our landscape’s essence.  If we strongly insist on only growing native plants in the yard then we should be buying our food from local, sustainable farmers who use native plants for pollinator attraction.  It is ineffective for one to insist on native plants in the garden then turn around and purchase boxed and processed foods shipped from miles away.  This congruity principle extends to all aspects of our lives and not just the garden plants we select or grocery store merchandise we choose.  Our native plant advocacy effectiveness diminishes when rant and rave about why we should plant native plants and then are spotted in Publix buying Scandanavian brie or a Moon Pie.

Needs, good stewardship, consistency and practicality should all be guiding forces in our garden plant decision process and none of us have exactly the same perspective to the sustainability v. immediate needs questions.  I’ve summarized three different plant selection perspectives down to several overly generalized world views, including: 

A. The ‘IDGAS, I’m Hungry’ world view.  The IDGAS approach includes growing whatever plants you need to survive, even if they are aggressively invasive and result in native flora displacement.  This approach may create monocultures that result in significant loss of native plant habitat as a response to one of immediate desperation survival needs.  An example here would be moringa (Moringa oleifera), kudzu (Pueraria spp.) or water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes).  But this IDGAS perspective may allow for significant food production to occur now so long as supporting resources and biogeophysical conditions allow.  Many consider the IDGAS perspective to be a more immediate term focused approach with little or no concern for long term future scenarios.  The IDGAS school of thought dismisses the ‘Butterfly Effect’ theory as fake news.

B. Next are the Mixed Up Gardeners like me.  The Mixed Up Gardeners are those who plant a mix of native pollinator/food plants along with fast producing food plants and try to control the growth extent of the aggressive food plants.  This approach may attenuate the spread of aggressive non-natives but will not stop non-native plant proliferation.  Non-natives will still spread due to bird-wildlife seed disbursement, stormwater carry off and wind displacement. This approach too, may allow for moderate amounts of quality food production to occur.

C. Then there are Native Purists who recommend planting only wildflowers and native species for food.  Examples would be native squashes, fruits, seeds and open pollinated grasses and grains.  This approach would act as an important firewall against non-native plants and invasive plant spread.  Sourcing pre-columbian documented seeds and plants may often be problematic and frustrating to the gardener though.  

Arguments of validity may be made for all three of the above approaches and of course one could adopt many different hybridizations of these three perspectives during garden design.  I can see the token native wildflower being included in design or on the other hand, the token citrus tree plant specified.  Realistically I think the majority of permaculture advocates and native plant enthusiasts are centrists, or in the ‘Mixed Up Gardener’ group.  Most gardeners I know are all for using native wildflowers as pollinator plants and pest control.  

Unfortunately the above is highly oversimplified, incomplete and somewhat polarizing.  For example, fire impacts are already removed from most of our garden locations.  Without spring and early summer fire events usually started by lightning storms, many native plants do not thrive anyway.  Additionally, with the advent of human colonization, ecosystems have changed in a myriad of ways with most exerting environmental pressures against native plants while favoring non-native species.  These factors include changes in; climate, stormwater flow, groundwater recharge, acid rain, particulate matter, CO2 levels, ozone depletion, sunlight availability and  others.  Change happens daily, so what does it matter if we speed up changes to our neighborhood by growing non-native plants?

But what about native plants for food plants?

Two important questions arise here.  First, what would we plant if all of a sudden standard garden seeds for tomatoes, eggplant, squash, okra and other traditional garden plants, were no longer available?  Seed availability collapse could happen for a variety of reasons, from botanical diseases to gmo manipulation for Intellectual Property control.  

Secondly, if the majority of gardeners take the ‘Mixed Up Gardener’ route, planting natives and non-natives in the garden then it is conceivable the Butterfly Effect could happen much quicker than we first predicted.

To be honest, with as many years I’ve hands on worked with plants I am a novice at devising a native plant list for the garden that could provide for ongoing sustenance for myself, let alone for a family.  I can quickly write up a list of native pollinator flowers and also standard vegetable and fruit plants that could keep a family fed.  However, ask me to come up with a garden plant list based only on native plants and I’ll have to spend some time doing research on the matter.

The types of native edibles I can think of would include; fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, leaves and leafy greens, starchy roots and mushrooms/fungi.  Mushrooms and fungi are not necessarily true plants and we won’t discuss them here except to say that they would make up a big part of my native plant garden.  Like meat, mushrooms can provide much needed vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and carbohydrates.  Let’s look at a few of the different native plants we could add to our permaculture garden in each of the above food categories.  Keep in mind these plants may require different growing conditions and tolerate (or not survive) a variety of climate factors such as frost and heat.

First of all there are native fruits.  Fruits are a good source of natural sugars, vitamins and minerals.  They have also been used by peoples here in Florida for thousands of years, as primary food sources.  Granted some of the edible native fruits found here have less than appetizing taste factors but others are absolutely mouth-watering delicious.  My list of Florida native fruits would include:

  • Blueberries, Vaccinium spp.,
  • Coco plum, Chrysobalanus icaco,
  • Muscadine grapes, Vitis spp.,
  • Saw palmetto, Serenoa repens,
  • Passion flower, Passiflora incarnata,
  • Prickly pear cactus, Opuntia spp.,
  • Southern dewberries, Rubus spp.,
  • Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana,
  • Winged sumac, Rhus copallina,
  • Elderberry, Sambucus nigra,
  • Mulberry, Morus rubra,
  • Papaya, Carica papaya (USF does suggest papaya is native to certain areas of the state),
  • Plums, Prunus spp. Including, flatwoods plum (Prunus umbellata), chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) and American plum (Prunus americana),
  • Seagrapes, Coccoloba uvifera
  • Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana
  • Pond apple (blah), Anon glabra
  • Huckleberries, Gaylussacia spp.
  • Gopher apple, Geobalanus oblongifolius
  • Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana,
  • Paw paw, Asimina spp.

Salad Greens and Potherbs

  • Southern amaranth, Amaranthus australis,
  • Spanish needles, Bidens alba,
  • Pitseed goosefoot, Chenopodium berlandieri,
  • Dollarweed, Hydrocotyle umbellata,
  • Pickerel weed, Pontederia cordata,
  • Sorrel, Rumex hastatulus,
  • Catbrier, Smilax spp.,
  • Purslane, Portulaca oleracea (USF suggest native)
  • Spiderwort, Tradescantia spp.,
  • Violets, Viola spp.
  • Mulberry, Morus rubra,
  • Chickweed, Stellaria prostrata
  • Dayflower, Commelina spp.
  • Cattails, Typha spp.
  • Meadowbeauty, Rhexia virginica
  • Southern plantain, Plantago virginica
  • Purple thistle, Cirsium horridulum,
  • Bedstraw, Galium spp.

Seeds, Grains and Nuts

  • Peppergrass, Lepidium virginicum,
  • Southern Amaranth, Amaranthus australis,
  • Acorns, Oak, Quercus spp.,
  • Hickory, Carya spp.,
  • Pine nuts, Pinus spp.,
  • Walnuts, Juglans nigra,
  • Beechnuts, Fagus grandifolia,
  • Sedge seeds, Cyperus spp.
  • Native sunflower seeds, Helianthus spp.,
  • Red maple samaras (seeds), Acer rubrum,
  • Wild rice, Zizania aquatica,
  • Southern crabgrass, Digitaria ciliaris
  • Panic grass, Panicum virgatum,
  • Bristlegrasses, Setaria spp.
  • Goldenrod, Solidago spp.

Herbs and Spices and Beverages

  • Peppers, Bird and Tabasco, Capsicum annum and C. frutescens,
  • Spotted horsemint, Monarda punctata,
  • Swamp rose, Rosa palustris,
  • Pine, Pinus spp.,
  • Wild garlic, Allium canadense., 
  • Jointweed, Polygonum spp.,

Starchy Root Tubers

  • Florida betony, Stachys floridana,
  • Coontie palm, Zamia integrifolia,
  • Pickerel weed, Pontederia cordata,
  • Cattails, Typha spp.,
  • Catbrier, Similar spp.,
  • Duck potato, Sagittaria latifolia
  • American lotus, Nelumbo lutea,
  • Tread So Softly, Cnidoscolus stimulosus

Disclaimer note; specific parts of the above plants have been used historically for food.  Some of these plants require a level of care, such as boiling in water to remove disagreeable and/or toxic compounds.  If one intends to ingest any part of these plants they need to complete all necessary due diligence concerning identification, harvesting and preparation first.  Moreover I would be cautious with wild harvesting, even with permission of the property owner, unless appropriate due diligence was conducted with respect to water and soil quality and the presence of pesticides or herbicides across the land.  It is ultimately best for one to grow their own collection of Florida native edibles so as to be knowledgeable of clean growing conditions.

The decision to choose native plants over non-native plants for our permaculture garden carries important consequences.  Over the years I’ve developed a list of events I can expect to see when including native plants in our permaculture gardens.  These expectations are, for me, primarily associated with native plants and include:

  • Proliferation in presence of useful pollinator insects
  • Increase in food production due to increase in pollination
  • Development of a functional, integrated natural pest management system
  • Shift toward decreased irrigation water consumption
  • Overall garden plant adaptation to local wind and light levels
  • Wildlife integration, and
  • Reduced pest insect presence

Non-native horticultural and agricultural plants do not always offer these benefits. However  non-native plants can help satisfy the human urges to experience difference, novelty and introduced food plants bring familiarity with culturally ingrained fruits and vegetables traditions.  Sometimes I wonder if this desire to eat different foods, made from non-native edibles, is a symptom specific to modern culture based on tight schedules and fast foods or a human trait that has followed our evolutionary trails over the millennia?  

Tomorrow we will be visiting a popular honey and permaculture nursery dealer who sets up a retail booth in downtown on the weekends.   Their plants are organically grown and they have a quality reputation.  I am going to record what garden plants they have for sale and inquire about native plant places in the permaculture world. I’ll be reporting back later this weekend.

OK that was enlightening.  I came away with the impression that these plant growers held the perspective that permaculture was, according to Bill Mollison, about growing food in the city to feed the population and freeing up rural areas that had been used for agriculture so they could revert back to native forests.  

In an almost apologetic manner, they suggested native plants do not produce enough food to be equated with agricultural plants in terms of produce value, yet could be used as ecosystem task fulfillers for activities such as pollination and pest control.  

The preceding perspective, in my opinion, elevates humans to a dichotomous position in the universe, making them separate and apart from rather than integrated into as a part of.  At the end of the visit I didn’t have my questions answered. We came away with a couple of exotic horticultural one gallon sized plants and significantly more questions than I had when I had arrived.  

What did I learn about native plant’s place in the garden from these Pensacola, Florida permaculture plant retailers?  As mentioned above, native plants should definitely be used as ‘ecosystem task fulfillers’ including pollination and integrated pest control.  Some native plants may be used for food production and they specifically mentioned blueberries.  Thirdly, all the land outside the urban boundaries that once was used for food production should be replaced, at least theoretically, by urban permaculture gardens and then could be restored to native ecosystems using native plants.  Finally, I came away from the visit with the impression these permaculture experts really believed that most native plants could not provide the same level of food production as could introduced and hybridized plants.

As for the horticultural exotic plants, I learned they were ok according to the permaculture plant vendors as long as the exotic plants did not take over native habitat and exclude native plants from growing too.  Containment was an important concept.  The permaculture gardener must make sure seeds or plant material from exotic plants are not dispersed by birds or hurricanes.

Our visit was short in terms of what we could have discussed, and I did mention that I was writing this post in an attempt to better understand the native plant and permaculture relationship issues.  The fifteen minute exchange was not enough time to fully explore the myriad of questions associated with the issue at hand.  I was also politely aware of the positive energy these folk were sharing just by their efforts with growing one’s own food, gardening encouragement and their sharing a love of beautiful plants in the urban core.  I was aware too that their efforts represented a money making venture where clearly the value of their plants were also boosted through an association with permaculture theory.  To be honest, if I was selling plants now, as an entrepreneur I’d probably be sharing the advantages of non-native food plants too.

Strangely, and it could have been my own perception, I felt the same feeling I get from other individuals passionate in their beliefs about their own specific endeavors, including fundamental native plant purists.  There was much beauty and potential in these exotic permaculture varieties, yet there was a bit of non-compromise too.  Perhaps because if one has so much time, energy and money invested into a world view or lifestyle then there may be a certain amount of ‘needing to justify’ their efforts and products.

Once we returned home from our visit to the permaculture plant booth I reflected for a day on the encounter.  Some of my takeaways included the thought that it is probably a waste of time to debate anyone with passionate beliefs about exotic permaculture plants on the possibility of using all natives in a food garden.  Exotic food plants can provide lots of healthy nutrition.  Our own garden’s exotic okra and eggplant, squashes and pear tree provides us with a harvest cornucopia.  We usually eat from the garden just about every day.  When so much established effort, habitual practice, money and time involved in creating a gardening lifestyle, changes may only come with extreme self-examination.

Persons must eat to survive.  As we stated in the beginning, if one is faced with hunger or growing an exotic food plant, the decision will be made to plant exotics, even if they are invasive.

The native food plant lists included above are complicated and require a significant amount of one’s time if roots are to be pulverized and boiled or if leaves must be boiled, drained then reboiled.  After a bit of consideration, I narrowed down my native plant food list to those species that produce the most tasty edibles for the least trouble.  They include

  • Blueberries
  • Dewberries
  • Mulberries
  • Persimmons
  • Papaya (I still pause when considering papaya to be a Florida native)
  • Grapes (muscadine and scuppernong, berries and leaves)
  • Southern amaranth
  • Opuntia, prickly pear cactus (fruits and pads)
  • Yaupon (for tea)
  • Horsemint (for tea and spices)
  • Hickory (nuts and for smoking wild caught fish and game)
  • Oaks (for acorns - maybe)
  • Seagrapes (If I lived in an area where they grew)
  • Wild roses (for hips and tea)
  • Sorrel (this plant covers our yard in the spring)
  • Dollarweed
  • Pitseed goosefoot
  • Smilax
  • Pine (needles and nuts)
  • Bird and tabasco peppers
  • Wild garlic
  • Beautyberry

These are the first edible Florida natives I’d plant.  After installing those in our garden I’d look at creating a wetland swale to grow wild rice, pickerelweed, duck potato, willow, red maple and cattails.  It is hard though to beat an South American-Bahamian sweet potato as a filling, nutritious and starchy food source. 

Another list can also be compiled of those food plants that supposedly have been introduced into Florida by early inhabitants.  Many of these food plants originally evolved in the western Mexico and Central American areas and were brought by seafaring or nomadic adventurers.  These plants can add an enormous food production value to any permaculture garden.  My list of these pre-Columbian introduced food plants include:

  • Seminole pumpkin
  • Corn (documented to have existed in archaeological sites dating back to 1000 BC, See Evidence for the Early Use of Maize in Peninsular Florida, Kelly, Thykot, Milanich)
  • Bananas
  • Sugarcane
  • Guavas
  • Avocado
  • Coconuts
  • and others

Sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is an interesting plant to consider.  Scientists have suggested that sweet potato was growing in the southern Bahama islands when Columbus arrived.  The Spanish explorer and others then carried sweet potatoes to Florida and back to Europe.  With an estimated Florida arrival time of 1492 sweet potatoes have existed in Florida much longer than avocado (early 1800s), bananas (early 1500s), guavas (early 1800s) and coconuts (late 1800s).

Traditional food plants that have been a part of Florida gardens for a hundred years or more may be more palatable for us to consider when designing our ‘native plant’ garden.  However once we begin incorporating non-native plants, no matter how long they have been part of the Florida landscape the issues and boundaries become blurred.

One of my recent favorite perspectives centers around the concept of accepting change as inevitable and making the best of what changes occur around us.  I realize there is no way our present day agricultural movement is going to suddenly shift from efficient GMO designed bulk nutrition plants back to small scale, open-pollinated native plants.

Another important question remaining to be answered also is that of how we humans will adapt to this new way of diet based on exotic, non-native and genetically altered and consumer driven plants and plant-based prepared foods over upcoming millennia.  Personally I believe we are only beginning to see the results of foraging to industrial farms shift in the health of our populations, specifically with respect to the rise of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

So which is better for our gardens, native plants or introduced exotics?  Should we be joining the IDGAS, Mixed Up Gardeners or Native Purists camps?  Science unequivocally favors planting only natives from a native ecosystem health perspective and there can be no denying this fact.  When humans are added to the issue the boundaries of what is ‘beneficial’ or ‘harmful’ become so much more indistinct, again depending upon a number of factors including hunger, security and others.  The IDGAS position is primarily money based, has a dearth of scientific support and is most likely the reason our earth is facing dire environmental challenges today.

Finally though when the universe ends all legacies disappear as though they never existed.  In the meanwhile we still must acknowledge that our descendants will be living with the end results of our actions today.  Our temporal legacy is defined in part by what we plant today.

The present momentum is too great for me to exert any immediate impact by pulling up non-native food plants and replanting with natives. Yet this does not diminish the necessity to work on a small scale basis for more awareness of ecosystem impacts we make through plant choice.  Just from writing this post my own personal awareness of the positive potential for native plants in the permaculture garden has increased exponentially.

We already have a number of native blueberries in our permaculture garden and beautyberry, pokeweed, wax myrtle, asters, yaupon, passiflora and other Florida native plants.  From my research I now see there are other species I can add that may easily increase food production and fulfill those ecosystem tasks our permaculture friends mentioned.  This I will.

I truly believe we should have the freedom to responsibly include any plant, regardless of its ecosystem of origin, in our gardens.  I also believe evolutionary forces will ultimately judge our garden’s success as well as our personal legacies.  What does your garden grow?