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Why plant natives?

Submitted By: Sarah Lee, Jefferson County Master Naturalist

The past few years, there has been a growing movement to use native plants in the landscape. You may have heard that “going native” will benefit the environment, and you want to know more! What is a pocket prairie? How to get started?

In this series of articles, local Master Naturalists will explain about native plants, hopefully clearing away some of the confusion on natural landscaping, offering useful tips on native perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees that will look beautiful with very little effort on your part. Today we start with why we want to use native plants.

First, a little science: a native plant is one that occurs naturally to a geographic area.  A non-native plant has been introduced with human help (intentionally or accidentally) to a new place or “habitat” where it was not previously found. Often these are “hybrids,” the offspring of two plants that have been crossed to get larger flowers or fruits, a certain color of leaves, etc. Or “exotics” which have been imported from other countries, such as Asia, where the climate is similar to ours. Exotic plants will often thrive in our climate, sometimes too well, escaping from cultivation into the wild, until they are considered invasive species.

Plants native to your area are remnants of ancient communities, called ecosystems, that include birds, insects, fungi, and animals, which you might consider guests or pests, depending how you look at it. These creatures interact in an environment, often depending upon one another for their survival as a species, and this is tied to the native plants of each ecosystem.

Natural landscaping uses native plants, whereas traditional landscaping historically has relied heavily on exotic and hybrid species. Natural landscaping uses plants already adapted to the climate, soil, terrain, and rainfall of your area, and as such, once established, they flourish without irrigation or fertilization, and are resistant to most pests and diseases. However, in establishing your planting, some chemical applications might be needed preparatory to planting, especially in areas of neglected or weedy landscapes. And certainly the plants need water until the roots have a chance to establish. But once established, they need very little care.

Native plants provide food for pollinators, birds and wildlife. Butterflies and birds, always on the lookout for something they can eat or use, will show up like you issued an invitation. Without knowing exactly which species you are supporting, you can assume that when you plant native you support wildlife, pollinators, promote biodiversity, and are practicing stewardship over our Natural Heritage.

If you are worried that your landscape will somehow not be as beautiful using native plants, rest assured the possibilities are so breathtakingly beautiful you will grow dizzy from your native choices. Our Master Naturalists realize this, and with their deep knowledge of plant species and associated requirements, they will guide you through making smart choices, no matter if it is shade or sun, dry or wet, as you develop your space into something you will enjoy and your neighbors will envy.

Conversely, traditional landscaping has mostly crowded the native plants out.  The typical Midwestern landscape, popular since the 1960s, has relied on hybrids and exotics such as Japanese maple, Norway maple, Mugho pine (China), English yew, Japanese barberry, Burning bush (Northeast Asia) &  Privet (also Asia) just to name a few. Homeowners wanted tidy landscapes, and the industry obliged them, developing ever more specialized cultivars through cross-breeding, which were marketed and sold on an ever-increasing scale. Gradually urban areas became vast artificial communities populated by monocultural turfgrasses and exotic shrubs and trees, artificially maintained with sprinkler irrigation systems and chemicals. You might literally go miles without encountering a native plant.

This coincidentally began an ongoing war with Whitetail deer who quickly adapted to the urban landscape, and there isn’t much in the exotic species world they won’t eat. However, besides the deer, this has created problems for the rest of our native wildlife, dependent on native plants for cover and survival. Many such species have become extinct, and others are listed as endangered because of loss of habitat. One such species is the monarch butterfly. The monarch has gained attention as their numbers decrease, due in part to the disappearance of the milkweed plant along their flyways in North America.

Native insects often depend on native plants to reproduce, and birds depend on quantities of these insects to survive. Even if you aren’t a big fan of insects, most people love songbirds, and their natural food sources are depleting rapidly as native trees, shrubs, and perennial plants disappear from the landscape.

So are you ready to go native? In a nutshell…start small, think big. Once you replace your hybrids there will be less watering, fertilizing, pesticides and work and you will attract diverse array of pollinators, birds and wildlife. Look for articles by Master Naturalists as they share tips and tricks for planting not just flowers and turfgrass, but bushes and trees in all shapes and sizes that are beautiful and smart about surviving harsh winters, brutal summers and everything in-between.