What is a Native Plant?

monarch purple coneflower

It’s important to reshape the way we think about gardening and working with our landscapes. It’s important to ask the right questions. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know why any of this was important until recently. I didn’t even know it was something I should think about.

Picky Eaters or Specialists?

I’ll give you an example…

Imagine you have a food allergy, gluten let’s say. And it’s really bad. You can’t eat it without being hospitalized. So it’s not really something you can sneak in from time to time and deal with feeling a little uncomfortable. It’s just not an option.

If you don’t know already, gluten is everywhere and it’s very hard to 100% avoid it. You are severely limited in what you can consume out in the world. You are in a sense less of a generalist and more of a specialist in what you can eat. Not by choice either. By necessity. 

We have some other very important specialists in our environments too. And they are the reason we’re able to breathe, and eat, and live. These specialists are called insects. Not all insects are specialists, but a significant portion of them are.

As you can probably guess, these insect specialists are very limited in what they can eat out in the world. If we (humans) cannot provide them with enough food to survive, they will die.

Why Can’t Specialists Take Care of Themselves?

You may think it’s not our job to provide insects with food. And at a certain point in history, it wasn’t needed. There were abundant resources available to them. Unfortunately, things have changed. Not only do we (humans) destroy natural habitats at an alarming rate, we also bring invasive species from overseas that end up running wild and out competing native plants and making these resources harder and harder for our native insect specialists to find. On top of that, we have decided to incorporate large amounts of ornamental non-native plants into our landscapes. While they may not run wild and out compete our native plant resources like invasive species do, they still displace and replace our natives at a very large scale.

In a way, we chose this. We chose what plants to incorporate into our yards and gardens. And unknowingly, we chose to push thousands of species of plants and insects to extinction.

Understanding Our Situation and Choosing the Right Path Forward

Our predicament is really tragic. But I’m not here to promote the sadness of it all, I’m here to help remind us our actions and choices really do have consequences on a massive scale whether they are intended or unintended. I’m here to help remind us to pay attention and to ask bigger and better questions.

Instead of just wanting something because it’s pretty, let’s start asking what purpose does it serve beyond my own personal wants and desires? What impact will this decision have on our future, not just my immediate future?

Why Should We Use Native Plants?

Back to the gluten example…

Just think about how much easier it has become to access safe gluten free alternatives than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Think about how many people can now go out and enjoy a meal because enough people paid attention to a need and adequately provided a solution.

It’s better for everyone when we consider all parts to an equation, at least reasonably so, and make a well balanced decision on how to move forward.

Hopefully by reading this far you can understand native plants are important to insect specialists, incredibly important. But what really are they, and how do you find them?

The Definition of a Native Plant

A native plant is indigenous to a particular geographic area. This means they occur naturally in a geographic area, or have existed there for a very long time. Native plants form plant communities and have specific biological interactions with flora and fauna of the area. Native plants fill a valuable role within a balanced ecosystem.

In other words, native plants want to be here, they were intended to be here, our insects need them, and they will grow and thrive here self sufficiently when the right environmental variables are met. This will be discussed in more detail in another post, but for the most part, it’s much easier to pick the right plant for your environment, rather than change your environment for the plant. That means no fertilizers, chemicals, etc. required for the plant to be healthy when you choose the right plant.

Native plants are beautiful and valuable to our yards and gardens. They are accessible. They can serve all the same purposes visually and functionally as non-natives plus a whole lot more. 

It’s Up to Us to Decide

It’s simply a choice. Like choosing to eat healthy or choosing to eat fast food. Choosing native or choosing invasive or non-native. We don’t need 100% native yards, we just need to have enough that our indigenous flora and fauna can survive. And if we all play a small role, especially in our own yards where we do have a choice, we can accomplish this goal.

If you live near a major city in the US you will likely have the ability to get in touch with local nurseries that offer native plants, have access to seasonal native plant sales, as well as access to local organizations that can provide you relevant information for your region and help point you in the right direction. Doing a quick Google search for “native plants (your city)” will definitely help get you started.

The goal of sharing this information with you is to help you see things from a new perspective, or help support your mission if you’re already a fan of native plants. And ultimately, with your help, we can create a wealth of resources for our native species and promote healthy, productive, diverse ecosystems, especially in our own back yards.

*If you’re in the Southeastern United States I’ll be compiling a lot of resources for you in the near future so bookmark this page and stay tuned.

*For further reading, here’s a study linking the decline of a native bird species to the presence of non-native plants.

3 thoughts on “What is a Native Plant?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *