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Going Native: Local Plants Save Money and Require Less Maintenance

Over the last few years, nurseries and arboretums have been prominently featuring native plants in displays and workshops. So, what's a native plant, and why does it matter whether your plant comes from your area or halfway across the world?

What's a Native Plant?

Native plants are those that grew in the U.S. before European settlers arrived. Being native to the region, these plants are ideally suited to the environment, including local soil, temperature, and water conditions. That's why the common Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) - the Maryland state flower - will withstand a long summer drought or an unusually cold winter in Maryland far better than tropical Hibiscus.


Benefits

Native plants can save you time and money. Once established, they are very low maintenance, requiring few if any fertilizers or pesticides, and very little additional water.

Drought, extreme heat and humidity, and severe cold are generally less damaging to plants that have evolved to grow - even thrive - under such conditions. Having evolved to withstand the local weather, insects, and fungi, they are also less prone to disease. Native plants still need regular pruning and water at planting, but in general, they require less care than plants that do not come from your region.

Native plants are also naturally suited to feed and shelter local wildlife, which may not be able to adapt to other kinds of vegetation. Landscaping with native plants is therefore a great way to attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to your garden.  Xeriscaping, landscaping using plants with water requirements corresponding to typical local rainfall patterns, is best accomplished using local plants. Your site will readily naturalize with minimal effort on your part

Non-Natives: Avoid the Interlopers

Flowers

Plants from outside your area may do equally well if they are suited to your climate and soil conditions,but take care not to plant an invasive plant - one that is so aggressive that it will prevent all other plants from growing in that area. Aggressive, non-native plants often have no enemies to control their spread. A good example is the dreaded Purple Loosestrife ( Lythrum salicaria ), which arrived from Europe in the 1800s and is now found in 42 states. This invasive plant has occupied vast areas of wetland in the Great Lake States, outcompeting almost every other plant that would naturally grow there. The National Wildlife Federation's eNature site lists invasive plants by state.

Even the venerable English Ivy is an aggressive invader. Left to its own devices, it will cover and choke everything in its way. In forests, it will choke out other plants on the forest floor and strangle trees in its path.

How Native is Native?

So, how native do you have to go? Is a plant considered native if it is from your USDA plant hardiness zone, your state, or the next county over?

A purist considers a native plant one that was raised in the immediate area. If you plant an elm that was raised in a nursery halfway across the state, it may not have been bred from stock that can withstand your local conditions. The National Wildlife Federation's eNature site lists native plants by state.

To be safe, ask your nursery for plants that were grown locally, rather than shipped in.

Planting Tips

Remember that you need to match a native to its natural growing conditions, just as you would with any other plant. Plant sun-loving plants in sunny areas and shade-loving plants in shady areas. Know the soil and wetness conditions the plant prefers: planting a native cactus in soggy clay soil will yield unhappy results.

And when you first put your plant in the ground, don't forget to water. After the first growing season, water only as needed.

For More Information

To find a list of native plants for your area, contact your nearest Agricultural Extension Service or your state or local native plant society. Other good sources of information include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the Center for Invasive Plant Management.

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Content updated on 8/7/2006

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