Why Native Plants

By Kailey Yaun

“If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20-million-acre national park, nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.”  – Doug Tallamy, Entomologist 

What exactly are native plants? 

Native plants are defined as plants indigenous to a given area in geologic time. This includes plants that have developed, occur naturally, or existed for many years in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction (trees, flowers, grasses, and other plants). What makes native plants so special is that they have the ability to survive and regenerate without human intervention. Plants are considered exotic or nonnative if they evolved in other parts of the world, or were cultivated by humans into forms that don’t occur naturally. Plants are considered invasive when non-indigenous plants spread from introduction, become abundant, and likely cause economic, environmental, or human harm. There are indeed beautiful and fascinating nonnative plants, but they typically cause harm to ecosystems. Crowding out natives who serve important roles in their environment, such as crowding out a plant that has co-dependence with a pollinator and in turn causes harm to the pollinator population, is one example of harm. Exotic and invasive plants do not support wildlife as well as natives, due to the symbiotic relationships native plants formed with other indigenous species over time. Native plants in their respective area offer the most sustainable environment. 

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Monarch caterpillar feeding on Ascelpias syriaca (common milkweed)

What are natives good for?

For wildlife: 

  • Native plants are foundational in ecosystems and provide many services to their community
  • They provide shelter, nectar, and food for birds, butterflies, and other pollinators 
  • Co-evolution happens with natives (such as the Monarch caterpillar and milkweed; milkweed is toxic to many creatures, but Monarch caterpillars evolved to eat milkweed for nourishment to transform into butterflies!) 

For water – clean water and flooding: 

  • Turfs require chemicals for upkeep, while natives do not 
  • Deep roots native plants have mitigate flooding, erosion, and stormwater runoff, as well as compact soil 
  • Natives filter dirty runoff from streets and infrastructure 
  • Natives are regenerative and don’t require irrigation once established 
  • They require less watering, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides 

For clean air:  

  • Natives conduct “carbon capture”/carbon sequestration, which means they take carbon dioxide out of the air, roots put it back into the ground (where it belongs!) 
  • Natives release oxygen into the air through photosynthesis 
  • Natives can help decrease pollution because they don’t require mowers and other pollution prone equipment as much as nonnatives do 

For food supply: 

  • Natives provide habitat for pollinators who provide us with sustenance 
  • They serve important roles in food webs; typically as food for organisms towards the bottom of the web, which in turn supports the level above and so on 

For us – mental and physical health: 

  • Having land with native plants can give people a sense of belonging to the natural world around them 
  • Studies show spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier 
  • Time in nature decompresses us and lowers stress 
  • Gardening provides physical work to be proud of 
  • ” Vitamin N” (Vitamin Nature) is the vitamin we need for “Nature-Deficit Disorder”; nature promotes creativity, mental acuity, and provides us with memorable personal experiences – phrases coined by author of “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle”, Richard Louv 

For beauty: 

  • With creative design and good management, natives can thrive in landscapes 
  • Natives can provide a wild and rugged look
  • Natives are beautiful!!  

For the future: 

  • Children can learn ecology by spending time with plants
  • Plants can provide opportunities for curiosity, discovery, and expanding creativity 
  • Children who connect to nature tend to become adults who care for the natural world 
  • Long-lasting healthy ecosystems are supported by native plants for future generations to enjoy 
Erythronium americanum, (yellow trout lily), a beautiful spring ephemeral growing up through leaf litter