In all the busyness of installing “green” systems in your garden—drip irrigation, compost bins, solar panels, gray-water recycling—it can be easy to overlook one of the most important environmental decisions you make as a gardener: what you plant. The federal government has estimated that nearly 25 percent of the 20,000 plant species native to North America are at risk of extinction, many of these through habitat loss. You can help reverse this trend in your own backyard by harboring native plants that are disappearing in the wild, like woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Plants native to your geographic region are ideally suited to your local climate and soil and provide a wealth of benefits to your garden and indigenous wildlife—and they can be just as aesthetically pleasing as exotic species.
Why Native Plants?
Because plants native to your region are already adapted to the local climate, they can typically endure freezing spells, drought, or whatever adverse weather patterns are customary for your area. Likewise, they are adapted to common pests and diseases and may have even developed defenses against local herbivores. In other words, from the start, native plants require a lot less protection, lightening your workload and sparing your wallet by naturally reducing the need for pesticides, fungicides, and the like.
Native plants are also inherently attractive to indigenous wildlife—on all levels. From the mycorrhizae in the soil to invertebrates in the undergrowth to pollinating insects and birds, the creatures large and small that inhabit even the most urban of gardens find food and habitat among native plants.
Native plants tend to require less water than nonnatives and, once established, need less long-term maintenance. And they rarely require fertilizer—sparing local water sources the inevitable runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen, which spur the growth of harmful algae.
Plants Native to Your Area
There is some debate among scientists as to what exactly makes a plant “native,” but there is general consensus that a plant in the U.S. may be considered native if it grew in a particular region 150 to 200 years ago, before European immigrants introduced a large number of new species from abroad.
The U.S. is a big country, and a herbaceous groundcover native in New York may very well be nonnative—or possibly even invasive—in Oregon. So as a gardener, you have some homework to do to determine which plants are native for your region. Fortunately, you don’t have to work too hard: There are a number of excellent resources online, on bookshelves, and on the other end of the telephone to help you out.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin runs the Native Plant Information Network, which includes a native plant database (wildflower.org/plants) of over 7,000 species native to North America, with basic information about the plants, how to cultivate them, and suppliers. At wildflower.org/collections you can find recommended species organized by state. This is a great place to get your shopping list started.
PlantNative (plantnative.org) is less detailed than the database at wildflower.org and is also geared toward landscapers and gardening professionals, but it offers a lot to the home gardener as well. It too offers regional native plant lists (plantnative.org/reg_pl_main.htm) and also has a nursery directory by state.
The USDA PLANTS database (plants.usda.gov) has information on thousands of plants, over 40,000 images, and a wealth of information about invasive and noxious plants as well as endangered species. It lists plants by state at plants.usda.gov/checklist.html.
The Center for Plant Conservation (centerforplantconservation.org), National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org), and The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org) all advocate for the use of native plants on the national level. Closer to home, you can find out more information about plants adapted to your region at your local botanic garden, garden club, or your state’s native plant society (try an internet search for “wildflower society”).
Of course, Brooklyn Botanic Garden is an excellent resource on native plants; its Native Flora Garden is itself a living museum of plants native to the New York metropolitan area. The BBG handbook Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants offers a huge number of native shrubs, trees, grasses, and herbaceous plants, along with helpful growing tips for gardeners across North America. And BBG’s newest handbook, Fragrant Designs, includes native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants like Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and sweet white violet (Viola blanda) that will beautify your backyard with eye-catching flowers and foliage and intoxicating scents.
Tough Natives for Tough Places (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2009): New in fall 2009, this BBG handbook features beautiful native plants that thrive in tough growing conditions with little or no maintenance.
Native Perennials: North American Beauties (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2001): Create a regional feel in your garden with native wildflowers.
Invasive Plants: Weeds of the Global Garden (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1996): Learn which plant invaders are problems in your area and ways to control them.