Growing Native: What’s All the Fuss?

By Rie Sluder, Guest Blogger, HSA Vice President * From the NorthEast Seacoast Unit newsletter Snippings

Queen Anne's Lace 2Exactly what is a native plant? To most people’s surprise the wildflowers that populate our road sides are not all native plants. Queen Anne’s lace, the ox-eye daisy, dame’s rocket, and common chicory were introduced to North America by early settlers. They escaped cultivation and have adapted to the environment so much so that they have become ubiquitous throughout New England and beyond. So exactly what is a native plant and why all the fuss?

Many define a native plant as a plant that was here before European settlement. It evolved over time with the other organisms in the area creating an ecosystem that is beneficial to all. In Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden, Lynn Steiner defines a native plant as a plant that is an integral part of a biotic community, establishing complex relationships with other local plants and animals.  Steiner points out that indigenous people lived in harmony with the natural ecosystem while the colonists did not. When settlers arrived, they chopped down the trees, ploughed the land and planted seeds from their homeland to replicate a lifestyle they had left behind. Many of these imported plants escaped cultivation and invaded the countryside changing the local habitat.

purple coneflowerOver time many native habitats were destroyed affecting the population of animals and insects that depended on them. The practice continues to this day. The decline in the Monarch butterfly population is an example of what happens when its natural habitat becomes threatened.

The plant industry often looks at plants as decoration only. Plants are chosen and developed because they are a particular size, color, have attractive leaf variegation or have double blooms. While this is pleasing to the eye and promotes sales, little thought is given to how it will impact the environment or the local wildlife. While we all want beautiful gardens we must realize that we do not live in isolation.

Growing natives helps to secure the biodiversity of our environment. Native plants attract pollinators which in turn help the plants produce seeds to replicate themselves. Having genetic diversity allows for new combinations of plants to form over time resulting in new adaptations that allow our planet to evolve and survive as climatic conditions change.

Another good reason to grow natives is that they are more sustainable to grow. They have developed a natural resistance to local insects and diseases and, therefore, need little if any intervention such as the use of pesticides. When grown in the proper conditions for a species, native plants thrive with less water and maintenance then many nonnative ornamental plants do. For many parts of the country having survived a drought last summer, this becomes an important asset.

goldenrodDeciding what to plant in your garden is a personal decision. If you want to go native, Steiner recommends that the best way to start is to integrate native plants with your established nonnative landscape plants. Choose plants that fit the conditions of your garden rather than trying to force them to adapt. A strong healthy plant is more resistant to insect infestations and to disease.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Database is a good resource to use to determine if a plant is native. You may discover that many of the plants that you already grow are native plants such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bee balm (Monarda didyma), purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) sunflowers (Helianthus), lance leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), blazing star( Liatris spicata), lupine (Lupinus perennis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa L), and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).

The Herb Society of America has two programs that support native conservation. The Native Herb Conservation Committee, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, identifies and promotes the use of native herbs. Its fact sheets and essential guides can be found on the website (www.herbsociety.org) under “Explore”. The 2017 Notable Native HerbTM is Solidago spp.

GreenBridgesLogo_LoThe second program offered by HSA is the GreenBridgesTM program which was created to secure safe passage of plants and pollinators by helping to prevent habitat fragmentation. Become a GreenBridgesTM partner by registering your garden with HSA. Details can be found on the HSA website .

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