What is a Native Plant?

It’s not always easy to define a native plant. You cannot say a plant is native to a particular state, as nature knows no political boundaries. But nature does know geographic boundaries.

native plant
A Monarch Caterpillar feeds on Common Milkweed in Pennsylvania. This is the only plant which supports the caterpillar on their way to becoming a butterfly. The two species, both native to North America, have adapted to this co-existence over millennia.

The official definition of a native plant from the EPA is: “Native plants (also called indigenous plants) are plants that have evolved over thousands of years in a particular region. They have adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of that region. Native plants occur in communities, that is, they have evolved together with other plants. As a result, a community of native plants provides habitat for a variety of native wildlife species such as songbirds and butterflies.”

That definition of native plants makes no mention of humans. To build upon it we might say that native plants are those that have evolved and adapted over a particular geographic range (for instance, North America, from Canada to Florida), without human intervention.

Even within their natural geographic range, native plant species are genetically adapted to local growing conditions. This adaptation is typically referred to as “local provenance” or “ecotype”. An ecotype is a subset of a species that possesses genetic adaptation to local growing conditions. Sometimes ecotypic adaptations are visible to us as variations in shape, size, or color. Other ecotypic adaptations are not readily apparent, for example, adaptations to various soil chemistries, minimum winter temperatures, and drought tolerance. Even if you can’t see the differences, it is still important to get the correct ecotype for your project site. -University of Maryland Extension Service

 

Not as simple as you thought? Join the club. A Red Maple native to Florida may not survive in Canada, even though it’s native to both. Local adaptation is very important.

The good news is, many garden centers and plant nurseries specialize in native plants, so if the nursery is reputable, you can be confident you’re choosing a plant well-adapted to your climate. All bets are off at big box stores.

Why use native plants?

But what exactly is the benefit to the landscaper or gardener in using native plants? In a phrase, sustainable, low maintenance habitat. A shrub, tree or flower native to your area has co-evolved with other shrubs, trees, flowers, and wildlife to create and support a diverse and robust ecosystem. Specific birds eat specific caterpillars in specific trees, local bees prefer the nectar of the local flowers, and that native pine species have been a winter habitat for wildlife for eons.

But native also means less work for you. A plant adapted to your ecosystem has a better chance of surviving heat waves, droughts, flooding, extremely cold winters, and local pests and diseases. Previous generations of that plant have survived that and more and that species’ genes have adapted to survive the conditions.

This is also a serious consideration as climate change picks up speed. A native plant has a much better chance of surviving whatever’s coming its way than a species imported from halfway around the world.

How do non-native plants affect the ecosystem?

When we plant non-native plants, they can act quite aggressively in the landscape. They have no enemies or controls to limit their spread and as they move in, complex native plant communities, with hundreds of different plant species supporting wildlife, are crowded out by the non-native plant. This creates a monoculture in which the community of plants and animals is reduced and simplified, with most native plant species disappearing. This leaves only the non-native plant population intact. We hear about invasive species frequently when a new insect pest appears in our local area – they overrun and at times destroy the landscape. The same thing can happen with non-native plants.

Again, from the EPA website: “For example, Purple Loosestrife colonizes wetland areas, replacing native plants unable to compete for available sunlight, water, and nutrients. Wetlands infested with purple loosestrife lose as much as 50% of their original native plant populations. This limits the variety of food and cover available to birds and may cause the birds to move or disappear from a region altogether. “

Purple Loosestrife, native to Europe and Asia, is beautiful but incredibly invasive in North America. It colonizes quickly and wipes out native plant species.

Reasons to use native plants:

  • Native plants provide a hardy, drought-resistant, low maintenance landscape which benefits the local environment. Native plants eliminate or reduce the need for fertilizers, pesticides, water, and lawn maintenance equipment. This saves you time and money.
  • Native plants do not require fertilizers. Vast amounts of fertilizers are applied to the 20 Million acres of lawns in the U.S. each year. Excess phosphorus and nitrogen (the main components of fertilizers) runoff into lakes and rivers. This runoff causes excess algae growth in the waters, which depletes oxygen, harms aquatic life, and interferes with recreational uses.
  • Native plants provide shelter and food for wildlife. Native plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife by providing diverse habitats and food sources. Closely mowed lawns are of little use to most wildlife.
  • Native plants promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage. Native plants are a part of our natural heritage. Natural landscaping is an opportunity to reestablish diverse native plants, thereby inviting the birds and butterflies back home.
  • Native plants require less water than lawns. In urban areas, lawn irrigation uses as much as 30% of the water consumption on the East Coast and up to 60% on the West Coast. The deep root systems of many native plants increase the soil’s capacity to store water, which reduces water runoff and helps manage flooding.
  • Native plants help reduce air pollution. Natural landscapes do not require mowing. Lawns planted with grasses, however, must be mowed regularly. Gas-powered garden tools emit 5% of air pollution in the U.S. and 40 million lawnmowers consume 200 million gallons of gasoline per year. This excessive carbon from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Native plants sequester, or remove, carbon from the air and store it in their woody material.

So.. there you have it. Go native.

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