University of Illinois Extension
Native Plants - WildFlowers - University of Illinois Extension

Native Plants


What exactly are native plants?

They are usually defined as plants recorded as growing wild in an area at the time that scientific collection began in that area. Other plants are considered introduced. The scope of Wildflowers covers several Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin). Plants included on the website are native to one or more of those states (some may also be native to states outside the scope of this website).

From a more subjective viewpoint, gardeners need to consider what native means to them. Some people are satisfied as long as the plant is considered native to North America or the United States. Others may feel that they only want to use plants native to the state in which they live. Yet others may want plants to be native to their immediate area (the region or county in which they live). Each gardener must decide what they will accept as native.

Some of the native wildflowers have become “domesticated” over the years and there may be cultivated varieties available that differ from the species. Again, each gardener must decide if they will be a “purist”, growing only naturally occurring species, or if they will accept these cultivated varieties. The website features only naturally occurring species.

A Note of Caution

The interest in native plants is growing, but a plant’s nativity does not make it automatically a great garden plant. Every native plant will not be a good match for every garden. Some native plants can be aggressive in their growth, so that factor must be considered, especially if the plant will be placed in a small garden. If naturalizing is the goal, however, plants that are aggressive growers or self-sowers could be considered desirable.

Not all native plants are attractive and that should be taken into consideration. This is a subjective decision that each gardener must make. Another subjective choice, but a far more serious one, is the matter of poisonous plants. Among both introduced plants and natives, there are plants that may be harmful to some degree and a few that are deadly. It is not the intent of this website to list which plants are poisonous. In some cases, the poisonous nature of a plant has been noted, if the plant is particularly toxic. However, if a plant is not designated as poisonous, it is not automatically a ‘safe’ plant. Safety should always be a concern in the garden. Don’t select a plant without knowing more about it, whether it is a native or introduced plant.


Misconceptions about Native Plants

There are some commonly held misconceptions about native plants. It is often stated that native plants have fewer disease and insect problems. This is not necessarily true. Some native plants have few problems while others are constantly plagued. We have higher expectations in a managed landscape. A native plant suffering from a disease or insect in the woods, may go unnoticed. The same plant in a traditional landscape may give a poor appearance.

Another misconception is that native plants are adapted to the area so they will have superior growth. In terms of cold hardiness, this is true. However, when we look at soil conditions we see a different picture. Many of the soils in suburban and urban sites are disturbed; they may be primarily subsoil (which is inadequate for plant growth) or a subsoil/topsoil mix. Mycorrhizal fungi that are found in undisturbed soils may be missing. These fungi help native plants absorb water and nutrients from the soil, leading to better growth. So we may have a native plant in an altered environment. This doesn’t mean that native plants can’t be grown in urban and suburban sites. It means that we must do what we can to make those sites as appropriate as possible. We should expect the possibility that the plant will not reach its full potential (in terms of size and flowering) in these sites.

A third misconception is that native plants are always more desirable than non-native species. Poison ivy and poison sumac are natives, but they are far from desirable. Some natives are aggressive growers, spreading rapidly. They may overwhelm a small yard or may not fit well in a traditional landscape. As with any plant group, careful selections need to be made.