Ken Parker Brings Native Perspective on Native Plantings to Bird, Tree, Garden Club Brown Bag

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Ken Parker can usually tell where he is based on the plants.

Sometimes, though, he’s thrown off by non-native or invasive species. There will often be burning bush thriving outside its Asian point of origin or Colorado spruce along a highway in western New York.

“Can it grow here? Of course it can grow here,” he said. “But it kind of muddles up the landscape.”

Parker, a member of the Seneca Nation and certified New York nursery and landscape professional, will speak at 4:15 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall to provide a Native perspective on native plants.

Whereas Native people and native plants once flourished across the Americas, Parker said they now represent minorities. For the New York-based Seneca, this threatens a lifestyle reliant on plants for medicines, dyes, clothing and even nutrition.

Many of the world’s foodstuffs — corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and more — were transplanted from the Americas with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and settler colonialism. Mainstream descendants of these transplanted species bare little resemblance to the original.

Parker points to the indigenous “corn cultures” of Mexico and North America who relied on corn as a foundational component of their diet. After Europeans arrived, they bred indigenous corn to become today’s sweet corn, trading nutritional value for sweetness. This modification, along with other colonial food imports, impacted Seneca health in serious ways.

“As Natives, our diet is messed up,” said Parker, who also works with the Seneca Diabetes Foundation. “We’re not eating traditional foods, and we have a high incidence of diabetes and heart disease because of that.”

Parker said he works to cultivate the Seneca heirloom white corn to reintroduce an appropriate diet, and, in 2014, the Seneca were the first tribe in the United States to create a native plant policy. Individuals are now required to plant native on all Seneca land, including schools, office buildings and casinos.

The policy applies only to the Seneca Nation, but Parker works to educate everyone, particularly homeowners, on how a one-size-fits-all mentality affects more than just indigenous peoples.

“We’re all colonized,” he said. “We think about the gardening magazine that comes out and the TV programs on HGTV. We’re constantly bombarded on ‘this is the way your garden should look’ and ‘this is stylish.’ ”

But what a garden looks like should vary based on climate and region, Parker said, and individuals should refrain from molding the landscape to fit an ideal type imposed by others.

“If you live in the swamp, you should only grow swamp plants,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged how hard it is for the average person to plant native; nurseries, particularly in New York State, don’t sell enough native plants, Parker said.

He even criticized mass-produced native plants, like the popular American Beauties program, for growing plants in a place such as Montana and then selling them to nurseries in another place, such as western New York.

“When we get a plant from another area, from another climate, pollination is two weeks earlier or two weeks later,” he said. “The plant is already genetically programmed to do that. These are just little cues that creates a domino effect in the landscape.”

That domino effect mainly affects pollinators, such as birds and bees, which instinctively seek out pollen at certain times. Protecting an animal’s habitat, including humans, depends on planting native, and Parker said that change depends on upending decades of gardening homogeneity.

“We’re set on petunias and things we’ve been growing for years and years,” he said. “Sometimes change is not popular.”

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.