What’s All the Fuss About Native Plants?

By Colleen Beaty|July 25, 2013

When recommending planting projects for conservation programs, we always stress the importance of using native plants in lieu of non-native ornamental species. But what’s all this “fuss” about native plants anyway?

Let’s start with what a native plant is. A native plant species is indigenous to a particular geographic range. In North America, this typically means that a plant existed in a geographic range of the continent prior to European colonization.

A bumble bee on swamp milkweed. Photo by Katie Basiotis.

A bumble bee on swamp milkweed. Photo by Katie Basiotis.

Native plants co-evolved with the wildlife in their endemic region. These animals are therefore able to derive greater value from the native plant than from a species they did not co-evolve with. For example, the berries of native plants provide better nutrition to songbirds than the berries of non-native plants, because songbirds’ bodies evolved to process those native berries.

Native plants are also adapted to the climate conditions in their range. They are better equipped to deal with thing like the local temperatures, soil types, sunlight strength, precipitation and moisture availability, diseases, and foraging by native herbivores.

Okay, great! So what does this mean for your program? Native plants will tend to attract more wildlife, providing more opportunities for your staff to view animals such as butterflies and songbirds. Also, because native plants require far less irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and mowing than non-natives, they will:

  • Save you money!
  • Reduce your facility’s impact on water quality in the local watershed
  • Reduce your facility’s impact on local pollinators, which are sensitive to pesticides

There are lots of great resources to help you pick native plants for your projects. My favorite is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website, which has a database searchable by things like location, soil type, and moisture availability.

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