Native plants provide ecosystem services unmatched by their non-native counterparts. Planting native can help support insects, spiders, and other wildlife at home.
Whether by air, by land, or by sea, people have been moving plants for centuries. While exotic plants can provide new and exciting landscape appeal, they simply don’t provide the same benefits as native plants.
Plant Definitions Worth Knowing
Below is a compilation of many plant definitions that relate to native, non-native, and invasive characteristics. Before we go on, it’s important to note that many of these definitions share overlapping characteristics and meanings.
Native Plant: A plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem. Only plants found in the United States before European colonization are considered to be native to this country.
Introduced Plant: with respect to a particular ecosystem, any plant, including its seeds or other biological material capable of propagating that plant, that is not native to that ecosystem.
Non-Native Plant: A plant introduced with human help (intentionally or accidentally) to a new place or new type of habitat where it was not previously found.
Naturalized Plant: A non-native plant that does not need human help to reproduce and maintain itself over time in an area where it is not native.
Exotic Plant: A plant not native to the continent on which it is now found.
Opportunistic Native Plant: A native plant that is able to take advantage of disturbance to the soil or existing vegetation to spread quickly and out-compete the other plants on the disturbed site.
Weed: A plant (native or non-native) that is not valued in the place where it is growing.
Stay Away From These
Invasive Plant: A plant that is both non-native and able to establish on many sites, grow quickly, and spread to the point of disrupting plant communities or ecosystems.
Noxious Weed: A plant that can directly or indirectly injure or cause damage to crops (including nursery stock or plant products), livestock, poultry or other interests of agriculture, irrigation, navigation, the natural resources of the United States, the public health, or the environment.
Non-native plants are little more than botanical statues standing sterile in the landscape providing few ecological benefits. Simply put, non-native plants are inferior to native plants in their ability to support wildlife.
The Problem with Non-native Plants
Wildlife species share an evolutionary history with plants. Throughout history (pre-industrialization), environmental change was slow. This slow change provided sensitive species with time to adapt to new and changing environments. Throughout the last century, however, environmental change has occurred much more rapidly. Climate change, shrinking habitats, and introduction of new species into fragile ecosystems are a few examples of rapid environmental changes that have had detrimental impacts on biodiversity.
Some species of wildlife can thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions. These generalist species often have varied diets and habitats. Species that thrive only in a narrow range of environmental conditions are specialists. Specialists rely on strict diets and specific habitats for survival. Even small changes in the environment can render specialists unable to thrive.
One of the most well-known examples of an insect specialist is the monarch butterfly. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed. When the eggs hatch, monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves. Monarch caterpillars cannot feed on any other species of plant. As milkweed plants have dwindled throughout the United States, so too have the monarch populations that so dearly depend on these plants.
And monarchs aren’t the only species experiencing population plummets. While specialist species are more likely to struggle with changing environments, as many as 40% of insect species are declining and one third are threatened.
Grow Native, Bee Friendly
Incorporating native plants in your home landscape is a great way to support insects and spiders. But are all native plants created equally? Not necessarily.
It’s important to do some research before heading to your local nursery or online native plant supplier. Many nurseries and big box retailers in the U.S. advertise plants as native. But always take a closer look. Some of these plants, while native to the United States, might not be native to your region of the country. When possible, it’s best to find a local native plant nursery that propagates native plants locally. Local plant propagation ensures your plants are suited to your eco-region.
Also be on the lookout for native plant cultivars, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. While these plants are advertised as native, they’ve been bred to exhibit specific characteristics that make them more appealing to humans. But increased human appeal does not always equate to increased pollinator or wildlife appeal. Recent research suggests that some native plant cultivars are inferior to straight species, while other nativars might be better at attracting pollinators. Check out recent reports from Mt. Cuba Center, a native plant research garden in Delaware, to learn more about how nativars fare compared to straight species.
Planting for the Entire Life
Installing a small pollinator garden is a great place to start with native landscaping, but remember this: Flowers will attract insects to your landscape, but if you really want to support insects in the landscape, you need to cater to their various life stages and needs. Be sure to include a variety of bloom colors and bloom times that can support insects and other wildlife throughout various life cycles and seasons. And don’t forget to include native shrubs and native trees! Many insects rely on woody plants for reproduction or rearing of young.
What to do about nit-picky neighbors
Not everyone loves native plant gardens. For decades, people have battled nit-picky neighbors, homeowners association (HOA) agreements, and city codes for permission to go natural. Worried about your yard attracting unwanted attention? Here are some tips to help ensure your landscape looks respectable.
- Create neat edges around your garden spaces. Using natural stones or wood can help ensure your landscape looks intentional.
- Weed your native gardens regularly. Seed banks of weeds and other unwanted plants can persist in the soil for many years. Practice regular garden maintenance until native plants are able to outcompete weeds.
- Consider certifying your yard as a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch, Certified Wildlife Habitat through National Wildlife Federation, or sign the Pollinator Protection Pledge through the Xerces Society. These programs allow you to purchase yard signs which can help educate your neighbors about the purpose and benefits of your garden while sending the message that your garden is intentional.
What you can do:
- Before heading to your local nursery to purchase plants, research which species would be appropriate for your eco-region
- Assess environmental factors of your landscape like soil quality, soil type, shade, and water-holding capacity of your yard. Ensure you select plants that are appropriate for your yard’s environmental conditions. Plants that need full sun and dry roots simply won’t fare well in wet and shady conditions.
- Research the benefits of native plant cultivars (sometimes referred to as “nativars”) as they may offer inferior wildlife benefits compared to straight species
- Plant a variety of native species that support wildlife through various life cycles and seasons
Additional Reading and Resources
Garden for Wildlife (National Wildlife Federation)
Pollinator-friendly plant lists (Xerces website)
Eco-regional Planting Guides (Pollinator Partnership website)
Native Plants for Birds (Audubon website)