Years ago — maybe 18 or so — I was a member of an arboretum that gave out rooted cuttings of free plants to subscribers at a certain level of membership. These were often plants relatively new to the horticulture trade that the arboretum was testing for my area. One year, they offered a three-for-one deal: cuttings of three different varieties of loropetalum (Chinese witch hazel). This was a new plant for me then, the description sounded appealing to my tastes — purplish leaves and magenta flowers, so I tried them.
We chain-sawed one to the ground this year. It grew way, way larger than promised, and it was crowding out plants I like better. So — off with its head!
I do still love the leaves that emerge purple, and with some varieties, remain a deep maroon. And I love the pizzazz of the magenta flowers. But these shrubs are not native here; Asia is their native land. And after 18 years of observation, I can affirm they do absolutely nothing for the local ecosystem that justifies the space they take. Why? Nothing eats them.
These plants are shunned by every insect and warm- and cold-blooded native animal that lives in my yard. They must taste very bad indeed. The only life I observe in these shrubs — which are 15-feet tall and 10-feet wide now — are birds, which use them as shelter during storms and as nesting sites in spring.
I wanted these shrubs to screen the front of my house from cars entering my driveway, and they serve that purpose admirably. But so would any number of native evergreen shrubs and small trees.
Some of you may be thinking that I am crazy to want to remove plants unbothered by “pests,” but if you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll recall that the rapidly increasing eradication of native southeastern forests is leaving native animals with diminishing options for survival. For more information, try this post or this one.
We gardeners are on the front lines of the battle to save our native ecosystems. I didn’t fully realize this when I happily acquired and planted three tiny new purple non-native shrubs almost two decades ago. Every plant choice we make contributes to the preservation or destruction of the natural world we love.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that Wonder Spouse and I are going to have to figure out a way to remove these giant purple sterile shrubs and replace them with well-adapted natives. I am a sucker for purple leaves and flowers, but in the future, I will stick with native options. I owe that to the natural world that nurtures my mind, body, and soul every day.