Conservation Topics

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. One example of harm inflicted by non-native species includes the depleting of pollinator food availability due to invasive plants crowding out native plants, resulting in decreased populations of both the native plants, as well as the co-dependent pollinator species. Exotic and invasive plants do not support wildlife as effectively as natives, due to the symbiotic relationships native plants formed with other indigenous species over time. In turn, Exotic and invasive plants have been removed from an ecosystem in which natural predation by co-evolved species would normally maintain a balance within the community. Native plants in their respective area offer the most sustainable environment and are the best constituents in forming an integrally cohesive ecosystem. 

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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, pollinators and many other species of wildlife native to a given area
  • Complex co-evolution has occurred over time with natives (e.g. 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: 

  • Turf requires large amounts of chemicals for upkeep, while natives do not 
  • Deep rooted native plants mitigate flooding, erosion, and stormwater runoff by providing a framework for infiltration and improving soil structure
  • Natives filter sediments out of runoff from streets and infrastructure, preventing pollution and algal blooms in local water bodies
  • Natives are reliably regenerative and don’t require irrigation once established 
  • In general they require less watering, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides 

For clean air:  

  • Natives effectively conduct “carbon capture”/carbon sequestration, which means carbon dioxide is taken out of the air, while roots put it back into the ground (where it belongs!) 
  • Native ecosystems adapted to local climates and conditions maximize the 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 assist in providing us with sustenance 
  • Native plants serve important roles in food webs, serving as the foundational trophic level (or lowest level of the food chain) providing food for all other forms of wildlife in the area

For people – mental and physical health: 

  • Having land with native plants can give people a sense of belonging to the natural world around them. No other place on earth can have native gardens like those in your region, talk about something to experience and bond over within your community! 
  • 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 and to feel a part of your surroundings
  • “Vitamin N” (Vitamin Nature) is the “vitamin” as cited that 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 built landscapes 
  • Natives can provide a wild and rugged look, or an orderly, neat aesthetic depending on the application and desired outcome
  • Natives are beautiful!!  

For the future: 

  • Children can learn ecology and be inspired 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 a great deal 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