It’s February. It’s too early to start your garden. However it’s never too early to start planning it.
Perhaps you’re feeling inspired. Maybe you just read Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope—or perhaps you’re inspired by that loopy friend—the one who dug up her lawn and put in all those wildflowers.
(It wasn’t much to look at for the first couple of years, but man—that conga line of monarchs bobbing across her yard all last September was sight.)
So, you want to try adding some of those ‘natives’ to your yard, but you’re not even sure what that means, or where to find them.
For starters, it’s helpful to understand some key terms:
A plant that occurs naturally in your region. Generally, this is one that was present before European settlement.
Why it matters: 90% of our native insects in the US are specialists and require a specific native plant to survive. The birds, bees, butterflies and insects which are native to your area co-evolved with those plants and depend on one another in ways scientists are still unraveling. With 99.9% of the native prairie gone, many of those species are struggling to survive.
Endangered American Bumblebee on purple coneflower
A Non-Native plant is one which did not exist in your region prior to European settlement. This includes many plants you may have always assumed were native, like Kentucky bluegrass and Queen Anne’s lace.
Native American bellflower – this is the not the invasive one!
And many, like pampas grass, butterfly bush, dames rocket, and common bellflower—though once imported and widely used—have now gone on to be classified as invasive. Once coveted in gardens, they now out-compete and dislocate critical native species.
Why it Matters: Non-Native plants do not provide the same nutrition or serve the same utility as native plants do. The bug may not be able to digest the leaf, the bee to extract the pollen. It’s not just bugs. Bird populations in North America have dropped as much as 53% in the past fifty years. One of the reasons is because birds don’t have enough of the bugs and caterpillars essential to raising their young.
A cultivar is a plant that has been specifically grown to produce identical results each time it is planted. Cultivars are often chosen for certain results—resistance to pests, brighter color, or better heat tolerance.
That might seem desirable, but the changes sometimes result in plants which no longer fill the needs of the environment, for example an aster bred for a brighter shade of pink might become “invisible” to the native bees that fed on the original plant. Cultivars also decrease genetic diversity, a feature that enables a species to evolve over time (and changing climate).
Nevertheless, cultivars are popular with large garden centers because they are more profitable.
You can spot cultivars in your garden center or garden catalog when a plant sports a “name”. For example, Rudebeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ or Echinacea PowWow Wild Berry are cultivars. Any time you see the quote around a name, it’s your clue the plant was probably not around when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Why it Matters:
Native birds, bees, and insects may not be able to make use of the cultivated plants—which also crowd out the plants those creatures depend on.
A Nativar is essentially a cultivar of a native plant. The intentions are good—to make a native plant easily reproducible and widely available, but the results can be disastrous, such as the milkweed plant which can’t be digested by monarch caterpillars—and in fact kills them.
Doug Tallamy, founder of Homegrown National Park, an urban native gardening movement says :
“I think the safest policy right now is to encourage the use of straight species. Ask for them at your local nursery [and] encourage nurserymen to start stocking more straight species. The nursery industry has not embraced the message that native plants are more about ecosystem function than about looks. We have to convince them that there is a market for plants with high function.”Doug Tallamy
Why it Matters:
The only way to be certain your plants serve the creatures that depend on them is to buy native plants specific to your environment.
Dos and Don’ts
With those definitions in mind, here are some Dos and Don’ts for finding native plants for your garden.
- Don’t remove flowers or plants from parks, private property, roadsides, ditches, or woods. For one thing, you may be breaking the law. You also may be threatening a delicately balanced ecosystem by removing plants. Plus, just because it happens to be ‘growing wild’ doesn’t mean it’s native. You could be inviting an invasive species into your yard.
- Don’t buy a box of “wildflowers” at your local big box lawn and garden. Most wildflower mixes available commercially include domestic, European, and Asian flowers which crowd out native plants, degrading the environment. Flowers to avoid include Dame’s Rocket (which is often confused with native phlox) and Queen Anne’s Lace.
Start with a little research. You’ll want to identify the plants and flowers which are suitable for your area, climate, and soil type. Many conservation groups offer online tools to assist. Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, and the Xerces Society all offer tools to assist. Enter your zip code or select your state to get a list of trees, bushes, plants, and flowers native to your area.
- Audubon Native Plants Database
- National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder (beta)
- Xerces Society Pollinator-Friendly Native Plant Lists
Obtain the plants. This can be challenging. Native plants are rarely available at big box garden stores. If you’re lucky, you already know of a local garden shop which specializes in native plants. Or, maybe your local nature center hosts seasonal plant sales.
If not, there are online tools which can help you locate suppliers in your area. Here are a few links to get you started:
- Homegrown National Park: Purchasing Native Plants
- Xerces Society Native Plant, Seed and Services Directory
- Plant Native National Native Plant Nursery Directory
There are also online nurseries which can deliver native plants right to your door. I’m in the Midwest and a couple of my favorite online native nurseries are:
Always make sure your nursery is neonicotinoid-free and that the plants they sell are responsibly harvested.
Using native plants in your landscape comes with a host of benefits. In addition to supporting hundreds of at-risk species, native plants require less water and no fertilizer. This helps protect your city’s water supply. They don’t require chemical pesticides and are easily managed through diversity.
Have questions? Did you find this article helpful? Let me know in the comments below.
One response to “Where to Find Native Plants for Your Garden (and where not to)”
What an excellent and informative post, just the thing on a bleak February day. I love the photography. What a beautiful house you have. Thank you so much for your research. I really enjoy the idea that we can change the world this way. So much of what we hear is hopeless and this gives me hope.