Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a wonderful native tall shrub/understory tree to add to your Z5-10 landscape.
When choosing plants to add to your garden or yard, consider the many benefits of native plants.
Whenever I visit a garden center or look through a plant catalog, I am taken in by the lush blooms and perfect foliage displayed on the plants for sale, aren't you? Marketers know what sells: major bursts of color, lush blooming plants ready to pop in the garden or a patio container.
But each time, before making a purchase, I remind myself to ask the question, "is this plant native to my area?" Don't get me wrong - I have a lot of non-native plants growing around my property, and I am not a native plant purist (though I know some who are). But as the years go by, I have realized the many benefits of using native plants over exotics.
First, though, that age-old question: What is a native? This is not a simple answer. Over the course of many millions of years, plant species have evolved, gone extinct, and moved around quite a lot as continents have shifted and the climate has warmed and cooled with passing ice ages. With the advent of humanity, of course, everything got sped up and mixed around much, much faster than would have happened naturally. Natural communities are constantly changing, so there is truly no static baseline we can point to to define the precise "native" range of any particular plant. However, a generally accepted definition of a native plant is one that evolved in a biogeographic region together with the climate, soils, fauna, and plant community around it.
That discussion could be a whole separate post, which I will add one day soon.
10 Benefits of Using Native Plants
1 - Right Plant, Right Place.
This is an old adage that reminds gardeners to place plants in areas where the conditions are right for their preferences (in terms of soil type, moisture, and sun exposure). In a larger sense, though, you could say that native plants are more likely to be the right plants in the right place generally.
Because native plants occur naturally in your area, it's more likely that they will find the conditions to their liking, and do well there. Yes, you still need to consider the soil and how much sun and water the plant will receive, but choosing a native shrub over a fussy gardenia hailing from Asia, for instance, might serve you better in the long run.
2 - Beauty.
Native plants can be absolutely exquisite. Take the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) pictured above. Not only are its creamy white, cup-shaped flowers gorgeous, but the fragrance is to die for. After the bloom fades, lovely cones of red berries form and persist on the plant through the fall and into the winter. Sweetbay magnolias are also semi-evergreen, providing excellent winter interest. And that is just one example. You don't need to go for the eye-popping bonanza of an exotic flower or shrub. There is a huge variety of native plants to choose from that range from subtle to stunning.
3 - Low maintenance and less watering.
Why adopt a needy, finicky plant that requires constant attention, when you could plant an un-fussy native that does just fine in occasional droughts, frosts, or downpours? Since native plants evolved in your region, they are probably going to deal with the challenges nature throws at them from year to year much more successfully than plants that come from far away. This is a major benefit to gardeners who are looking to save time, water, fertilizer, and money.
4 - Unusual natives will make your garden a standout.
If you look around your community and peek into your neighbors' gardens, what do you see? Most likely, a range of similar plants. While choosing standbys and standards is fine, you can create a lot of interest and variety using a few unusual native plants. Instead of hybrid lilies, why not try growing the native wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum), with its gorgeous upright, deep red-orange flower?
I wish more gardens featured lovely native wood lilies like this one.Photo credit: Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service (retired), Bugwood.org
5 - Native plants are crucial for birds.
You might think that any tree or shrub will do for a bird, but that's not true. Birds require specific plants to fulfill their needs for food, cover, and nesting territory. Remember in my definition of native plants above, I mentioned that native plants co-evolved with fauna over time? Part of that faunal association includes insects - especially caterpillars - that evolved special immunities to the plants' natural chemical defenses. In plain English, that means that most caterpillars evolved to live on certain species of plants. They can only eat that plant's, or a certain small group of plants', leaves. And what depends on caterpillars for much of their diet? Many, many birds. Even the seed-eaters like chickadees, cardinals, and finches who come to our birdfeeders rely on a steady diet of caterpillars and other insects while they are rearing their young each year.
So, to attract the birds, you need to provide the caterpillars. To get the caterpillars, you need to plant caterpillar food. Native plants that have caterpillar associations are called larval hosts. It's like a backwards domino effect. Don't worry that you are consciously planting things that caterpillars will eat holes in. While it's true that they may cause some damage, because the caterpillars and native plants evolved together, it is unlikely that the plant will succumb to the pressure, especially if you add lots of examples of larval hosts throughout your garden.
TIP: The #1 best larval host plant you can plant is a white oak tree (Quercus alba). It plays host to hundreds of species of caterpillars. It's a big tree (60-80 ft), so you need lots of room. If it's an option for you, go for it and you will reap the wildlife benefits for decades to come.
6 - Native plants are vital for butterflies.
Butterflies start out life as eggs, then turn into caterpillars before metamorphosing through pupation into adult butterflies. As described above, in their caterpillar stage, most species are picky eaters. Just as monarch butterflies will only eat milkweed plants, most other butterfly species have a similar native plant species or family to which they are partial. So, if you want to draw more butterflies to your property, figure out what their caterpillars' favorite dining habits are, and plant for them. The North American Butterfly Association has published regional butterfly gardening guides that offer a helpful place to start.
7 - Save our pollinators.
Most of us have heard about the difficulties facing European honeybees, one of our agriculturally important groups of pollinators. But native bees, beetles, and ants also play a huge role in pollinating the plant world. Some pollinators are not too choosy about the flowers they visit, while others are specialists. Conversely, some plants will attract any number of different pollinators, while others will only reproduce if pollinated by the right insect. For example, the yucca (Yucca glauca) has its own pollinator called--confusingly-the bogus yucca moth (Prodoxus decipiens). If you plant natives in your garden, soon it will be buzzing with all sorts of interesting pollinators.
The yucca plant depends upon a single moth species for pollination. Photo credit: Matt Lavin, Bozeman, MT
8 - Don't forget the mammals!
Native plants, especially shrubs and trees, offer homes, cover, and food to many mammals as well. When you plant for the bottom of the food web (the insects, for our purposes), mammals in the middle and at the top will also benefit. Berry- and nut-producing plants are especially important to small rodents like mice, chipmunks, squirrels - and the animals who hunt them, such as foxes, owls, and hawks.
9 - Native plants are great for xeriscaping and for rain gardens.
Do you have an area that is particularly droughty, or a very wet spot near your downspout? There are native plants that are perfect for such tough conditions. Instead of shoe-horning in annuals or perennials that you have to constantly replace, try a few tough native species, which will flourish rather than perish. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Great Natives for Tough Places is a good place to start. University of Minnesota Extension also has a fantastic set of guides to help choose the right plant for a variety of tough situations. Many of the suggestions, though not all, are natives.
10 - Excellent edibles.
If you want to share in the bounty, look for natives to add to your edible landscaping. Plants such as blueberries, highbush cranberries, pecans, pawpaw, elderberry, and hazel are just a few examples that produce edible fruits, berries or nuts. Many natives have edible plants, shoots, roots, or flowers as well. The options are nearly endless.
Now that you have learned about some of the benefits of planting natives, where do you start?
First, look around your space. What do you have room for, or what can you make room for? Try narrowing down what sort of plants you want to try first (a tree, some shrubs, herbaceous perennials). Then think about what your goals are, using the 10 points above as a reference. If you have a particular interest in butterflies, start there and do a bit of research to make a list of potential choices.
Here are a few wonderful resources for learning about native plants in your region:
Have you gardened with native plants? What changes or benefits have you noticed? I'd love to hear your thoughts - leave comments below.