Gardening | 30 December 2016What are Native Plants and Why Should We Use Them? Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Maybe you’re familiar with native plants and the multifaceted roles they play in our ecosystem, or like many of us, maybe you’re somewhat new to their many benefits. Some of us tend to think of wildflowers when we hear the term “native plant,” but did you know that not all wildflowers are actually native to North America? And, on top of that, there’s a misconception that many native plants cause severe allergies, but did you know that Kentucky bluegrass can produce more allergens than any native plant? In her new book, Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden, Lynn Steiner demystifies and showcases these powerhouse plants and guides gardeners everywhere in the process of selecting and tending native gardens. The prairie ecosystem once covered over 200 million acres in the middle United States and south-central Canada. Today, less than one percent of our native prairies remain. A good way to experience this species-rich habitat is to visit a restored prairie such as the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Photo: Lynn Steiner / Grow Native What is a Native Plant? Just what is a native plant? Most people consider a North American native plant to be one that grows naturally without human intervention and was here before European settlement. Some people only consider a plant native if it is indigenous to within a certain radius (a range of 50 to 200 miles) of its location. Other people allow a more expansive definition, which may include any plant that would have been found in their state or even all of North America. By and large, the indigenous peoples lived in harmony with the plants and animals of an area without drastically altering the natural ecosystems. European settlers, on the other hand, had a major impact on the landscape as they cut down large stands of trees, plowed up acres of prairies, suppressed natural fires, and introduced plants from their homelands and other parts of this continent. Gardening with native plants will help you become a responsible and sustainable gardener so you can complement your natural surroundings rather than cause further harm to them. Priority is put on choosing the right plant for the right place so you can reduce or eliminate your need for artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and watering; choosing plants that are beneficial to native pollinating insects and birds are a priority as well. This xeriscaped garden in southwestern Washington state includes California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), buckwheats (Eriogonum species), and beardtongues. Photo: Mark Turner / Grow Native Unlike most introduced plants, though, a native plant fully integrates itself into a biotic community, establishing complex relationships with other local plants and animals. Not only does a native plant depend on the organisms with which it has evolved, but the other organisms also depend on it, creating a true web of life. This natural system of checks and balances ensures that native plants seldom grow out of control in their natural habitats. The word “wildflower” is a commonly used term, but it does not necessarily mean a native plant, since not all wildflowers are native to an area. Wildflowers include introduced plants that have escaped cultivation and grow wild in certain areas. Examples are Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and chicory (Chicorium intybus), two common roadside plants, neither of which is native to any area of the United States. Misconceptions about Native Plants Despite the increased interest and promotion of native plants, many people hesitate to use them due to some common misconceptions. Some people think native plants are colorless and dull, which is simply not true. Once you learn about the wide variety of natives and how to use them properly, you will discover that they have much to offer—not only colorful flowers but also interesting textures, colorful fruits, and year-round interest. They may not all be as bright and showy as many introduced plants, but their subtle beauty can be just as effective in landscaping. When given proper conditions and room to grow in a garden or landscape setting, most native plants produce larger and better flowers than they do when growing in the wild. Unfortunately, native plants often have a reputation of being the source of allergies. Goldenrods are especially burdened by this misconception. The truth is, most native plants are insect pollinated rather than wind pollinated. Kentucky bluegrass has the potential to produce more allergens than any native plant. Most native plants are no more invasive than many other garden plants. Most plants that become aggressively invasive are imported from other countries or from another part of the United States. Keep in mind that any plant can become invasive if it is given the right conditions—a site more conducive to rampant growth than its preferred habitat and a lack of the native insect predators that help keep it in check. The misconception that native plants are hard to grow comes from the fact that some, such as lady’s slippers, have evolved in a rather specific habitat, one that is often hard to recreate in a garden setting. Once you learn about the different plant communities and their soil and sunlight requirements and determine which plants are best for your conditions, you will find that most native plants are easier to grow than their cultivated counterparts because they have evolved in similar climatic and soil conditions as are found in your area. Some people think native-plant landscapes are messy. Well, nature is “messy.” It’s full of fallen logs, recycling plant parts, and plants that weave together rather than lay out in straight lines. Once you understand and appreciate this, native plants will no longer appear unattractive. As you’ll learn in Chapter 3, there are many things you can do to make a native landscape look neater, such as incorporating small patches of lawn grasses, creating paths and neat edges, and cutting back certain plants when they are done blooming. Some people avoid native plants because they think they are hard to find in the nursery trade. Once you learn which plants are native, you will be surprised how many are available at local nurseries. In every part of the country you will find nurseries that specialize in native plants, and many of them offer mail order. The key to creating a successful home landscape with native plants is to understand the natural plant communities that once covered your part of the country and work toward successfully incorporating them into your gardens and landscape. Nature is truly the best garden designer, and you will never go wrong if you attempt to imitate it. This garden in Texas includes ‘Henry Deulberg’ blue salvia, Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), redflower false yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), big muhly grass (Muhlenbergia lindheimer), little bluestem, and blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum). Photo: Catriona Erler / Grow Native Reasons to Use Native Plants There are many reasons to use native plants, some more tangible than others. For many gardeners, the initial attraction comes from native plants’ reputation of being lower maintenance than a manicured lawn and exotic shrubs. For the most part this is true—provided native plants are given landscape situations that match their cultural requirements. Because they have evolved and adapted to their surroundings, native plants tend to be tolerant of tough conditions such as drought and poor soil. Native plants are better adapted to local climatic conditions and better able to resist the effects of native insects and diseases. Their reduced maintenance results in less dependence on fossil fuels and reduced noise pollution from lawn mowers and other types of equipment. One very important benefit of using native plants is their importance to native insects, birds, and other wildlife, which are critical to the survival of our planet. Creating native ecosystems in our landscapes provides a substitute for the natural habitats that are rapidly being destroyed. And why not plant a garden that is attractive to insects, birds, and other types of wildlife rather than repellant to them? Native plants are best choices for these ecosystems. They are recognized by native birds and insects and known to be palatable, unlike nonnative plants, which have not evolved with native fauna. Growing native plants gives you peace of mind that you are not further contributing to the degradation of natural habitats. Many traditional landscape plants have the potential to become invasive and weedy when grown in conditions without the natural checks and balances that keep it under control. When a native species moves into a natural area from a garden bed, it usually just becomes a part of the ecosystem. When an alien species move in, it often grows faster and reproduces more successfully. The result is a monoculture that displaces native species and provides little or no habitat for native fauna. Gardening with native plants will help you create a sense of place rather than just a cookie-cutter landscape. Nothing says “Midwestern” like a prairie garden. Lynn’s garden in Minnesota includes blanket flower, wild onion, purple coneflower, wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), and prairie coneflower. Photo: Lynn Steiner / Grow Native Your yard will be unique among the long line of mown grass and clipped shrubs in your neighborhood, yet still be as attractive or more attractive than other traditional landscapes. You will get an enormous sense of satisfaction from helping re-establish what once grew naturally in your area. You will see an increase in wildlife, including birds, butterflies, and pollinating insects, making your garden a livelier place. (See Chapter 3 for more about designing with natives.) On a broader scale, using native plants helps preserve the natural heritage of an area. Genetic diversity promotes the mixing of genes to form new combinations, the key to adaptability and survival of all life. Once a species becomes extinct, it is gone forever, as are its genes and any future contribution that it might have made. A less tangible—but possibly more important—side of using native plants is the connection you make with nature. Gardening with natives instills an understanding of our natural world—its cycles, changes, and history. Communing with nature has a positive, healing effect on human beings. Learning how to work with instead of against nature will do wonders for your spiritual health. By observing native plants throughout the year, a gardener gains insight into seasonal rhythms and life cycles. You will experience intellectual rewards that are somehow missing if you only grow petunias or marigolds. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Learn how to transform your yard into a beautiful landscape using native plants! You don’t have to compromise beauty for natural landscapes with ecological responsibility and sustainability. In master gardener Lynn Steiner’s book Grow Native, you’ll find guidance for planting stunning gardens using native species that support your local ecosystem. Organized in an easily accessible way, the book offers instructions for planting, maintenance instructions, helpful tips about soil, watering and fertilizing as well as gorgeous photography. With guidance about how to weave native plants into your landscape and replacing common ornamentals with natural plants, this book should have a place on every gardener’s bookshelf. Grow Native combines inspirational garden shots of native landscapes with plant specific chapters and photos. Topics covered include: Hardiness Zone Maps Inspiration Gallery: Gardens Full of Native Plants Why Grow Natives? What Do You Mean by “Native”? Lower Water Usage / Drought-Tolerant Hardier / Tougher Easier Care Sustainability Design with Natives How to Incorporate Natives into Your Landscape Replacing Common Ornamentals All About Native Plants Wildflowers Ornamental Grasses & Grasslike Plants Trees & Conifers Woody Ornamentals (Shrubs and Vines) Succulents Bog Plants Basic Growing Tips (planting, soil, watering, fertilizing) Pests Resources Native Solutions for Special Situations Additionally, sidebars throughout Grow Native offer pointers for attracting specific butterflies, birds, bees and other beneficials to your yard–all through plant selections. Lynn Steiner is one of the Upper Midwest’s best-known garden writers and a frequent speaker at gardening and environmental events. She is the author and photographer of several books that advocate for the effective use of native plants in the typical home landscape. Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, the first book designed to identify Minnesota’s native plants and plant communities and to demonstrate how to use them effectively in a typical home landscape, was a finalist in the 2006 Minnesota Book Awards in the Science and Nature category. Lynn is the author and photographer of several other books, including Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World, published in February 2012. Other titles include Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin, published spring 2007, and Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, published in 2006 and named a Michigan Notable Book for 2007. She also helped develop, wrote, and provided photographs for The Complete Guide to Gardening series, ten regional gardening books published in 2012 by Cool Springs Press. For fifteen years, Lynn was the editor of Northern Gardener magazine, the official publication of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. Under her direction, Northern Gardener received several Overall Excellence awards from the Minnesota Magazine & Publication Association, and several individual contributors received Garden Writers Association Media awards. She now writes a column for the magazine titled “Northern Natives.”Lynn lives with her husband and two cats on a 115-year-old farmstead in northern Washington County, Minnesota, where she enjoys tending her gardens and watching the progress of her restored prairie, savannah, and oak woodland. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.