Native Plants – How and Why they help the environment

perennial native plants. flowers that give color all summer

What Native Plants can do for you

Welcome!  In this article I will try to detail out some of the key benefits of native plants, and why you should choose them for your garden and yard.  In addition I will show you some of the threats our pollinator species face, as well as what you can do to help.  But in a nutshell, by choosing Native Plants for your garden you can;

  • Have perennials blooming from Spring through Fall
  • Attract new, and lots of butterflies and birds
  • Lower maintenance costs of your garden
  • Reduce how much you need to water your flowers
  • Lessen threats to your plants posed by disease/pests
  • Build your soil naturally, and without having to amend it or add fertilizer

I’ll also describe how my interest in this subject started, at the rip old age of 32.  So join me in this topic, as it is near and dear to my heart.  It also has sparked an interest in identifying plants that I come across, feeding my natural curiosity.

The day my interest in Native Plants began

So, it was about five years ago that I had an Aha moment, that started me down the path of learning Why Native Plants are so important.  I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park with some friends along the Appalachian trail, and I came upon a swarm of Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.  There were hundreds of them fluttering everywhere!  Now, unfortunately I didn’t capture this on video.  However, it changed what I thought of plants and pollinators.  It was really a transforming experience, being completely surrounded and even having some land on me.  This was the spark, the trigger, and the moment that changed how I view plants around me.

I used to stroll through the mountains or woods, not worried about what plants were around (except poison ivy).  After this day, I started to pay more attention to each plant.  And I became interested in identifying them and learning how the fit within the natural order of things.  Basically, how did those plants provide life to other creatures, and how that plant depended on other creatures for its own survival as a species.  And throughout this time I gave myself an informal education and became fascinated with how they all worked.  How they adapted to certain environments.  And how their pollinating insects adapted to them.

swallowtail butterflys in shenandoah national park
Some of the butterflies we observed that day in Shenandoah National Park

Ecosystems are complex things….and rely on Native Plants

Any complex system, be it a car, refrigerator, society – needs all of its parts to function.  If one part breaks down in can threaten part of the system.  Our environment / ecosystem is just about the most complex of all systems…and native plants are a part of it.  In fact Native Plants are the foundation and basis for our ecosystem.  There a millions of ways how all the Native Plants help your local ecosystem, and are necessary for all other creatures survival.  Every organism of an ecosystem is required for it to survive at every level.  A balance is created, with an ebb and flow of each species.  If one species becomes too numerous, it will be consumed in excess by its predators, who in-turn will become more numerous, and then reduce in population size when they overeat their own food sources and experience a food shortage (or over consumed by their own predators…).  In a way, it is nature’s system of checks and balances.

One easy way you and everyone else can help in this ecosystem is by growing native plants in the garden.  I can go on a long argument for all the reasons, and in such detail that it could bore you into clicking away from this page.  So, I will try to summarize some reasons as to why Native Plants should be in your garden.

Food food food…..

Do you enjoy eating blueberries?  Raspberries?  Enjoy pumpkins, tomatoes, and peppers?  Well, these plants have something in common.  They all are pollinated by native bees, and not the European honey bee.  Without our native bees in the ecosystem, these fruits would cease to exist as the flowers require pollination to produce those delicious tomatoes and blueberries!  In fact, while the bumble bee needs pollen from tomatoes, the tomato flower doesn’t produce any nectar.  Thus, honeybees aren’t interested in flowers without nectar.  This means that in addition to being especially good at pollinating your tomatoes, the bumble bee needs to go to some other flower for the nectar it needs to get energy.

Delicious cherry/yellow pear tomato salad with balsamic Vinegar!
Delicious cherry/yellow pear tomato salad with Balsamic Vinegar!  No fruits without pollination!

 

And you might say, well those should always exist in the wild, or on farms so what is the big deal?  Well, if you want to grow these types of fruits, then you need bees to live close to you.  If bees and other pollinators are going to live close to you – then they need other flowers to be available when your vegetables aren’t flowering.  They also need other flowers to provide the energy-giving nectar.  What I’m saying is, they need a steady source of nectar from early Spring when they emerge from hibernation, all the way until fall when they go into hibernation/dormancy.  In fact, there are a number of species of bee that kind of ‘specialists’ in which flowers they will visit/pollinate.

Don’t forget about Squashes and sunflowers……..

peppers grown in garden jalepenos habaneros
Peppers that are exclusively pollinated by native bees!

How important are some of our other pollinators to certain native plants?  Well, UC Berkely that Squash and the common sunflower, Helianthus Annus are only pollinated by one species of native bee!  Without them, these plant species wouldn’t be able to reproduce.  And no sunflowers would be bad for reasons other than aesthetics.  Many birds eat the seeds of sunflowers, as well as squirrels and rodents.

 

How important those early and late flowers are….

When do flowers start blooming in your neighborhood?  If you are in zone 5, 6, or 7 that is probably in late April / early May when the temperatures are warm enough to go without a jacket.  About this time is when garden centers become increasingly busy, peaking around Mothers Day.  Most people are buying dozens of annuals to plant in their beds.  Maybe tending some knock-out roses or daylilies.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

But – did you know that those bees have been out looking for food since March?  They need flowers to start blooming in early Spring and continue until October/November so they have a constant source of nectar!  About the only flowers you see in peoples gardens in April are Tulips or other bulbs, and those provide a good source of nectar.  But what if instead you had Virginia Blue Bells and Dutchman’s Breeches?  These flowers are attractive when plentiful, and can make a stunning display.  They are also buzzing with life, quite literally.  If you have ever come across a colony of these plants in the wild, you would see hundreds of bumble bees going from bloom to bloom, collecting pollen and nectar.  This activity is generally absent, or much less in a small tulip or crocus patch in someone’s yard.

And late bloomers are important too….

In Autumn on the other end of the growing season we see sooooo many mums.  And garden centers sure love selling them to people, each year come September.  And bees do collect the pollen/nectar from these – but what if you instead tried growing some perennial asters?  New England Aster is gorgeous in September/October, and its cousin Aromatic Aster will bloom from October through November!  So you could grow some native plants that will bloom long past all of your neighbors mums have died out.  These plants are pollinated by our native bees, and the seeds are eaten by our birds and rodents – all part of the complex ecosystem that we live in.

Keeping it local = a better environment

Did you know that certain types of native bees don’t travel far from their nest?  Since they stay close to their home, it makes keeping flowers close by all summer.  These are primarily solitary bees (no hive).  But even the bumble bee generally won’t go 3 miles.  These pollinators need food all the time, so a consistent source of nectar all growing season.  More nectar sources for more time will equal more bees, and a more complete, healthy ecosystem.  And, more fruits and vegetables for you!  Keeping native plants in the vegetable garden will bring in more bees, meaning more pollination, meaning more food production for your garden!

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
Bumble bee feeding on Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa

Native Plants are more than just for Spring/Fall

There are a number of other native plants that are only for specialist pollinators.  Hummingbirds only feed on certain types of flowers, like columbine and Cardinal Flower.  While it is true that you can purchase a hummingbird feeder, if more natural food sources exist then our environment can then support more hummingbirds.  Other types of flowers include various bee balms, monarda didyma and monarda fistulosa.  These can only be pollinated by hummingbirds, butterflies, and long tongue bees.  Oh – and the hummingbird moth (which is a sight to see).

Let’s not forget a few of our other long-blooming mid-summer Native perennials!  Liatris Spicata blooms for 4-6 weeks, and is a preferred source of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.  The old standby Echinacea pupurea (and its cousin, pallida) is loved by many varieties of butterflies and bumble bees.  Also, we can’t forget Butterfly Milkweed, being the host for the Monarch butterflies blooms for up to two months as well!

^^^Now that is one happy Monarch Caterpillar!

It isn’t just about pollinators

A Goldfinch on a cone flower
A Goldfinch resting on Echinacea. Seeds from Echinacea are a valuable food source for this songbird.

Remember when I said our ecosystem is complex?  Well, consider that the seeds from these natives are consumed by our birds.  Keeping native plants will encourage birds to visit your yard as they will come to the flowers after they have bloomed.  It is like having a natural bird feeder in your front/back yard!  It is actually quite fun to see 4-5 goldfinches snacking on Echinacea or Coreopsis seeds.  Or when you see a common sunflower that is six feet tall swaying back and forth because a bird just landed on it to eat some seeds.  Those in turn become part of the food chain for our overall environment.  Don’t just think of small song birds – did you know that in addition to song birds, wild turkeys eat Aster seeds?  Seeing a flock of feathered beach balls turkeys in your backyard is quite a sight!

Native Plants are important for all parts of the food chain

And although it isn’t pleasant to think about, some of these birds and rodents will become food for other members of our ecosystem.  Owls, foxes, coyotes, and even snakes all help to maintain a delicate balance in nature.  Now, those animals consume the rodents (who also consume the seeds).  And those rodent populations are one of the big reasons that Lyme Disease has spread so far.

Why Native Plants in your garden?  They are BEAUTIFUL!

coneflower, echinacea purpurea, Heliopsis Helianthoides, monarda fitusola, native plants
Just a few species of Native Plants, creating a wall of summer color! The amount of bees/butterflies this garden attracted was Amazing!

Native Plants can be arranged in your garden to create absolutely stunning color displays that will make your yard stand out from the crowd.  Arranging the Winecup flower (Callirhoe Involucrata) in front of Liatris and Echinacea will give your flower beds strong color.  Because they are native plants, your garden will be buzzing with wildlife!  You can use Native Plants to make a win/win situation for your home and the environment at the same time.

And here is the best part – they generally don’t require fertilizer!  Since native plants are adapted for your environment, they have evolved to thrive in your soil types and climate!  Thus they should be able to obtain full size without regular feedings of chemical/synthetic fertilizer.  Their deep roots can unlock nutrients in your soil that other plants just can’t reach!

Why Native Plants help your soil

Another reason why you should grow native plants is the benefits to your soil.  Did you know that Liatris roots can grow up to 10 feet (3m+) deep?  Roots that deep make Liatris one of the most drought tolerant flowers you can buy.

Or did you know that many of the ‘prairie’ plants can punch through clay soil with ease?  That will help break up the clay, providing more drainage (which almost all plants like), and giving your soil a natural aeration.  Choosing the correct native plants for your garden, and matching the conditions in which they thrive will mean less maintenance for you!  You will spend less time amending soil, watering, and trying to fight nature – and more time just enjoying your garden and the wildlife it will bring.

Adapted for more than just clay…

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are many Native Plants that are adapted for sandy or moist soils.  Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Verbena Hastata, and the beautiful Lobelia species (Cardinal Flower & Great Blue Lobelia) all tolerate moist soils well.  In fact, another name for Lanceleaf Coreopsis is Sand Coreopsis, indicating its tolerance for soils that are almost all sand!  However, I can speak with experience that this plant does well in clay.

lanceleaf coresopsis
Lanceleaf Coreopsis in our front garden, full bloom. Making a sea of yellow.

Why Native Plants are Tough

Since Native Plants have been present in our ecosystem for thousands of years, they have evolved to be tolerant of our climate, soil, conditions, and pests/diseases.  They will therefore require the least amount of maintenance, assuming it is in its happy environment (dry/moist/sun/shade).  Therefore having native plants should free up some time for you to do other activities, or just enjoy your garden more.

I can’t tell you how many gardeners I’ve met who have spent lots of time, money, and effort to amend their soil to make it more friendly to common non-native plants.  What if you could just choose Native Plants that are adapted to clay soil?  What if those plants could throw down deep roots that make it drought tolerant?  And what if those plants weren’t consumed by pests and diseases like roses are?  It sounds too good to be true, but it is true!  You just have to choose the right plants that are adapted to your environment.  And, if you are like me and are a bit frugal, you can grow these cheap – and experiment at the same time – by growing them from seed!Outdoor Garden Bench for Seed Trays

You can get Native Plants cheap!

How do you get native plants cheap?  By growing them from seed of course!  Many popular native plants germinate quite easily from seed.  In fact, I can provide you with all the instruction you need to passively germinate them in the spring, just the way mother nature does it!  For about $10 in seed packets you can grow 5-6 varieties of plants, that won’t need to much maintenance since they are Native!  This is another reason why native plants are the primary type of flower you should grow!

But, many Native Plants can be divided in the early spring.  So, if you know of a neighbor or friend who has a species that you want you might be able to get the plant for free.

Want to get seed even cheaper????  Save more $$$?

Golden Alexander Seeds, zizia aurea
Golden Alexander seeds, collected from our native plant garden.

Well, by collecting your own seed of course!  There are many ways to get seed, from Facebook groups to local gardening clubs.  But I love to gather them from the wild whenever I can!  Whenever I am driving during the summer, I always try to pay attention to what is blooming in the ditches or open fields.  If I see an interesting flower, I will stop and take a picture to ID the plant later.  If it is native, and interesting, I will make a mental note and return to gather seed later (say 3 weeks-2 months).  I’ve gathered many species that way – Rudbeckia, Joe Pye Weed, Echinacea, Ironweed, Bee Balm, Verbena Hastata, Lobelia just to name a few (ok, more than a few).  So, free seed – aint nuthin wrong with that!

An appropriate example

Right now (11OCT) as I’m writing this article, in my back meadow/garden there are eight New England Asters.  Six of these I grew from seed purchased online, but the other two plants I grew from seed I gathered near my home in a ditch!  Now, why this is interesting is that the plants grown from purchased seed likely came from a much more Northern climate.  Hence, they bloom earlier than my local eco-type.  So, all of the plants grown with purchased seed stopped blooming 1-2 weeks ago, while the plants grown from local seed are still blooming!  So by doing this I prolong that brilliant purple color.  I should also add that the color of the local eco-type varies significantly from the purchased seed plants, as it is a much darker purple.

Don’t forget about the trees!

Trees are a critical part of our ecosystem, and our natives have evolved in this manner for a reason.  Just think of all the

Over the last several decades, many trees have become popular in landscaping due to their flowering in the Spring, and speed of growth.  One invasive species that has been well documented to be a disaster is the Bradford Pear.  This tree was brought in to be beautiful and fast growing.  Little did the purveyors of this tree realize that the wood is weak and brittle, leading to limbs easily breaking during storms.  However, this tree does flower, and does get visited by pollinators.  Unfortunately the small inedible pears (to humans) do get consumed by birds, and then distributed across the landscape.  Now how does this (initially believed) sterile tree spread?  Why through cross pollination of course!  This tree cross breeds with pollen from other native flowering trees, to make hybrids.  These hybrids then enter the ecosystem through bird-droppings.

How invasive plants harm our native trees

Unfortunately, they grow so fast that they can out-compete native trees such as Oak, Maple, Hickory, and pretty much any other native Hardwood.  This means that they can shade out our native hardwoods, making them more prone to being consumed by deer.  (Yes, deer eat small tree saplings).  Now, these native trees sometimes have specialist birds who only nest in them, and certain butterflies will only use them as larval hosts.  If these trees aren’t allowed to grow, then again, we have a habitat reduction.  This is all due to releasing an invasive species.  The amount of butterflies that rely exclusively on certain hardwood trees is extensive.

Another example of an invader harming our trees is mile-a-minute vine.  This vine will grow extremely fast in good conditions, hence the name mile-a-minute.  The vine climbs up the tree and smothers it by taking all available sunlight.  This harms, and can kill the tree.  Below is a recent picture I took of a fairly small vine.  Although I have seen these climb up 50-60′ trees in the mountains.

Mile-A-Minute Vine covering a fence and tree
Mile-A-Minute Vine, covering a fence and beginning to smother a tree.

Invasive Trees can aid invasive insects

Sometime in 2014, or thereabout the Spotted Lantern Fly arrived from Asia.  It has been slowly spreading (not slowly anymore) across Pennsylvania.  It has now been reported in Virginia, New York, and it’s spread is accelerating. This insect is threatening winery/vineyards, hops fields, and hardwood trees.  They are able to defoliate a tree in a short amount of time, possibly killing it.  This insect is putting people out of business, and threatening our native trees as well.  The behavior of the Spotted Lantern Fly isn’t that different from a plague of locusts, except not much seems to kill them.  This threat is barely making national news at the moment – but I predict that by 2021, everyone will be speaking about how we should have acted with more diligence against this invader.

The Spotted Lantern Fly prefers to nest on the invasive Tree of Heaven, which is helping the it multiply. The Tree of Heaven was/is an environmental disaster before the introduction of the Spotted Lantern Fly.    Being that the Tree of Heaven puts out millions of seeds, making new plants, and in turn – reducing available area for our Native Hardwoods.  In addition to the seeds, the roots from Tree of Heaven produce chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants, creating more of a mono-culture instead of our natural diversity supplied by Native Plants.

 

To sum it all up

I’ve tried to touch on a number of reasons why native plants belong in your garden.  Since they have their own natural beauty and are helpful to your local ecosystem at all levels is why should always consider planting some Natives with your other flowers.  In fact, sometimes they are downright critical to the survival of certain species.   Their natural disease and pest resistance means less problems for you to deal with in the garden.  And matching them to their preferred conditions will mean less general maintenance (watering, etc).  But the beauty, ecological benefits, and fruit & vegetable benefits should make growing Native Plants a no-brainer for your home.

Save time, save bees, save butterflies, and save the environment are the reasons why Native Plants should be in your garden!

 

Before you go…

If you’ve enjoyed this article, sign up for our news letter to get our free guide to creating a perennial garden that will give you color all summer long!  Also, check out all of our native plant articles for more inspiration and information on specific species! And, follow us on Pinterest & Instagram.

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NATIVE PLANT FACT SHEETS

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