Today, native plants are recognized for their value not only for wildlife, but also for the beauty and hardiness that they bring to the home garden, their economic potential, and their unique spot in the ecology of our environment.TT
For many years, native plants in this country were considered little better than undesirable weeds. Farmers cleared them from the land to plant crops. Gardeners pulled them up relentlessly to make room for “designer” plants which may have started as natives, but had been manipulated by breeders to reflect current standards of floral beauty.
Early European immigrants tried to reproduce the lush gardens of their homelands, regardless of the differences in climate and soil conditions in this new world. Then, as the pendulum swung back, “native plants” became a catch phrase, a rallying cry for environmentalists concerned about the loss of habitat for wildlife.
What exactly is a native plant?
The answer to this question isn’t as easy as you might think. All plants (unless they are the product of human manipulation) are natives of somewhere.
What people today term “wildflowers” frequently include “exotic” species which have come from other countries and have become so well-established that we see them growing everywhere in the wild, often at the expense of the true native plants that they crowd out. Common examples of these invasives would be Japanese honeysuckle, Multiflora rose, and Purple loosestrife.
The problem has become so severe that the federal government has finally written laws and established committees to help find ways to eradicate some of the most aggressive species. In addition, federal regulations now call for the use of native plants in landscaping projects on federal and public property.
Most current definitions of native plants require that the species was present in this country before Columbus arrived in 1492. There are plants which were native to the North American continent, and others that were regional natives.
Some experts believe that it is important to only grow those plants which were originally native to your specific area of the country. There is some validity to this viewpoint, since even native plants can become invasive when grown in a location outside their normal range. For instance, some species which are well-behaved in their typically dry southwestern locale can become aggressive when encouraged by plentiful rainfall and richer soil.
Why bother growing native plants at all, when there are so many beautiful species available from all over the world?
While it isn’t necessary to turn away completely from these varieties, there are many advantages to incorporating native plants into your habitat, including value to wildlife, hardiness, and conservation.
Value for Wildlife
As plants and wildlife evolved together, adaptations were made by both to ensure that each was able to serve the other in the most effective way possible. As more and more natural habitat is destroyed by development, we need to help wildlife survive by replacing some of the native flora which is lost.
Butterflies are a prime example. It would be difficult not to appreciate the beauty of these insects and we tend to take their presence for granted, until we suddenly realize that there are far fewer than we remember from years ago.
A look at their requirements for survival gives us some clues to the reasons for their decreasing numbers. We often read in the newspaper about the declining forest habitat for Monarch butterflies when they reach the end of their migratory journey in Mexico. This is indeed a concern, but we need look no farther than our own local suburbs to find threats to their survival.
Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed plants. They have not adapted to other food sources, so if there is no milkweed in an area, there are no monarchs. Milkweed is a plant that survives in “waste places,” in abandoned fields and along roadsides. If we have cleared the fields for homes and shopping centers, or even for cultivated crops, and mowed the roadsides or polluted them with salt in the winter, then there will be no milkweed.
With this awareness, we can take steps to bring the monarch back. In our own yards we can plant native milkweed and once again provide a food source for the Monarch caterpillars as well as nectar for a wide variety of adult butterflies.
If you have an area that can be left natural, the Common milkweed can be allowed to grow. If you prefer a more cultivated appearance, Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with its bright orange blossoms, Pink-blooming swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), or White milkweed (A. variegata) all make lovely additions to the home garden.
Using butterflies for still another example of wildlife’s continued need for native plants, consider the common effort of plant breeders to create “showier” flowers. Starting with a simple, open blossom, breeders will manipulate the plant until the blooms are double or triple-petaled and ruffled and elaborate in structure.
These are lovely to behold and may certainly have a place in your garden, but they are useless to the butterfly. In order for a butterfly to land and get its curled tongue into the nectar, the flower must be fairly open and flat, or tubular without a lot of extra petals to block the entrance.
You can incorporate many different kinds of native plants in your landscape, thus attracting a wide range of wildlife. Fruiting shrubs such as Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) will draw birds, as will native evergreens and vines such as Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
To attract mammals, you can plant nut trees like native oaks and hickories. Whatever native plants you choose, you can be sure that you will be benefiting some species of wildlife because they are so closely interrelated.
When allowed to flourish in the wild, native plants provide the diversity that wildlife needs. Food sources are produced at a variety of heights, and at different times of the year.
Some berries are eaten immediately, while others languish on the branch. These less-favored fruits will still be there in winter when most other food sources have disappeared, and can mean the difference between survival and starvation.
Every part of a native plant has value, whether it be the nectar of the flowers, the bark for winter consumption or for hiding insects, or the leaves for forage. The roots loosen the soil, creating space, and sometimes food, for underground creatures.
Different growth habits create shelter to suit every species. When we clear natural areas and plant only lawn grass and a variety of exotic plants, the results may be pleasing to human eyes which have been acclimated to current standards of horticultural beauty, but little remains of value for wildlife.
Despite the overly-adaptable nature of certain exotic species, many introduced plants are temperamental and require a lot of work on the part of the gardener if they are to thrive.
This may include frequent fertilizing and spraying with pesticides, both of which are expensive and have a negative effect on the environment. In times of drought, these plants will require additional watering to survive, thus using up large quantities of that valuable resource when we most need to conserve it.
Plants native to a given area, on the other hand, have adapted strategies over many years to survive climate extremes in their natural habitat. Those species which grow in arid regions have developed smaller leaves, or even no leaves at all, in order to lessen both the need for water and its loss through evaporation.
Prairie species “cooperate” by distributing their roots at various levels underground, rather than having them all concentrate on the nutrients and moisture at a single level.
Although periods of major drought may occur only once or twice in our own lifetimes, even species from normally wet regions will have seen many droughts during their evolution and will be somewhat adapted.
Flowers may be shorter due to lack of rain, but they will generally bloom. Trees that are severely stressed by drought will actually produce more fruit (seed) than usual, ensuring that even if the individual tree dies, the species will continue.
Native plants also frequently have a resistance to common fungal infections and insect problems. Even if they are attacked, they have developed the skills to survive. Milkweed plants are likely to be eaten by caterpillars, yet their roots persist and they return each year.
Oak trees which are attacked by insects will not only survive, but the next year will produce higher amounts of toxic tannic acid, thus “fighting back” during the new season of growth.
Some natives have other distinct advantages over their cultivated counterparts. A number of landscape trees, such as the Bradford pear, have been bred to provide a mass of showy flowers in the spring, but that’s the end of their performance. A native Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), by comparison, has beautiful white blossoms in late spring, vibrant fall foliage, and fruits which persist through the winter.
The Bradford pear is also an example of what can happen when we tamper with Mother Nature. It has been used widely for landscaping because of its uniform, vase-like shape. This is the result of breeding to get all of the major limbs to emerge from the same spot on the trunk.
While the result may be attractive, now that these trees have been around long enough to mature, many of them are beginning to split down the middle. Having the weight centered in one area makes them exceedingly vulnerable to wind and snow, unlike native varieties which have branches extending from points all along the trunk, thus evenly distributing the weight.
For more information regarding native plants, including their conservation plus where to buy and use native plants, see Best Native Plants For Wildlife.