What is a Native Plant?

small chipmunk eating through a large sunflower

Native plants are all the rage these days. They’re hailed as the heroes of the natural world and saviors of local wildlife and ecosystems. But what is a native plant? We’ll dig in a little deeper to learn more about these ecosystem superheroes.

What is a native plant?

A native plant “occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.” That’s pretty straightforward. There are two other things to highlight from this definition of native plants.

Native plants:

  • Have a long lineage in a particular place (Their many times great-grandparents lived there, too, going back hundreds or thousands of years.)
  • Are not altered by human plant breeding efforts

Basically, native plants are firmly rooted by a long line of predecessors in a particular place and have not been altered by human breeding.

Why are native plants important?

Native plants are a critical piece of local ecosystems. Here are a few reasons why:

Drought tolerant and deeply rooted

Native plants are generally drought tolerant and need less water than non-native plants once they’re established. This is in part because of their roots. The root systems of native plants and native grasses are generally much deeper than non-native ornamental plants or turfgrass. 

For example, native buffalo grass roots extend up to 6 feet into the soil below. Non-native turfgrass? Only a few inches. 

Plant roots also stabilize soils and reduce erosion, which is critical. Soils are the foundation of all life, and lost soil is “largely non-renewable”.

Adapted to local climates

If you visit a national park or protected area, many of those plants have ancestors that lived there for hundreds or thousands of years before they did. These plants know how to tolerate or thrive under local temperatures (maximum and minimum), weather patterns, and soil conditions.

Necessary for wildlife and waterways

Native plants are only one part of a local ecosystem. Local wildlife, which also has ancestors in that area, have adapted to using these local, native plants as food, shelter, and nesting sites for their young. 

Native plants also help manage the flow of water in an area. Cities often use native plants to stabilize the banks along waterways and stormwater basins. Native plants’ extensive root systems stabilize the soil, prevent erosion, and filter water as it drains into the ground.

Important to local ecosystems

Native plants are beneficial for local home sites, but they are also the foundation of local biological diversity (sometimes called biodiversity for short). This biodiversity can be seen in the interdependence that native plants and animals have with each other. 

This biodiversity extends below the soil as well. Complex networks of microorganisms, along with the visible elements above-ground, contribute to the interconnectedness of the whole ecosystem. Local wildlife, plants, microbes, and other living elements grow and change together over many generations. 

What are the benefits of native plants?

Native plants are to your local climate like a favorite pair of old jeans is to you. They’ve endured years of soaking rains (the washer), high heat (the dryer), and just about every climate they could encounter in your area, and now they fit like a glove. 

Native plants have gone through the wringer and come out stronger and more resilient. Here are a few benefits of the native plants that call your community home:

  • Little or no supplemental water
  • Little or no need for chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers
  • Generally low-maintenance
  • Plants won’t become invasive
  • Birds, bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies may visit and even stay a while
  • Plants won’t die from yearly temperature extremes
  • Less lawn to mow, fertilize, weed, aerate, or dethatch, saving time and money
  • With less non-native grass, you can specialize your planting areas: 
    • Use deep-rooting, heat-tolerant native plants in areas that face south or get the blazing hot afternoon sun
    • Use native plants that tolerate heavy rain in a rain garden or along stormwater pathways. Native plants also control erosion, runoff, and provide a natural filter for the water as it drains through the earth

What are non-native plants?

So, what do you call plants that don’t fit into the “native” category? Here are a few distinctions from USDA.gov:

  • Exotic plant: A plant that is living on a continent different from the one where it originated
  • Invasive plant: A plant that is disruptive to local ecosystems and is non-native
  • Naturalized plant: Non-native plants that survive and spread without human intervention
  • Non-native plant: A plant that is introduced into an area where it has not lived previously
  • Noxious weed: Plants that cause direct or indirect damage to crops, agriculture, or other natural resources. Some of these weeds are federally recognized, and as such, have laws surrounding them.
  • Opportunistic native plant: Native plants that spread aggressively and overtake other vegetation on that site
  • Translocated plant: A plant native to one area that makes its way to a non-native location
  • Weed: Plants that threaten ecosystems or agriculture

How to buy native plants

  • Native plant sales

Contact your state’s native plant society (or your local chapter). These societies often host at least two plant sales per year (spring and fall) as a fundraiser for their group. Sometimes they will sell plants throughout the year at their meetings.

  • From a local nursery

With increased demand from consumers, many local, independent nurseries carry native plants. 

  • From a friend

Don’t underestimate the willingness of local native plant enthusiasts to share their abundance. When it comes time to divide overgrown perennials, local gardeners would be happy to share the extra with you instead of putting it in the compost pile. Or, you could ask them to save some of the seeds so you can start your own plants the following season.

  • Online

There may be seeds or plants that you aren’t able to find at local plant sales or nurseries. If you can find a seed supplier online that sources from plants with a long history in your particular region, give them a try. 

To note: Some native plants have a wide natural range. So, while you can source native species from suppliers outside of your geographic area, it makes sense that the same species from a much warmer, colder, drier, or more humid region will have adapted more to that region and not perform as well in your climate.

We’ll save a discussion on ecotypes for another day, but know that plants with ancestry in your local growing conditions (weather, soil, rainfall) provide the best addition to local plant communities.

How to use native plants in your landscape

Native plants fill many different landscape niches. Choose the one or ones that work best in your yard.

  • Butterfly, pollinator, and wildlife garden

You may (or may not) be on a monarch migration route, but you likely have some type of butterfly or wildlife nearby that could use a helping hand. (Check out this map from the U.S. Forest Service to see if you’re on their route.) Ask your local conservation or native plant society which plants provide food or shelter for local wildlife, such as bird species and pollinator insects. 

If you want to attract monarchs, be sure to plant the type(s) of milkweed native to your area in your butterfly garden. And don’t forget those un-bee-lievable pollinators, our bee friends. Build a bee house for local solitary bees, which are superb pollinators and don’t normally sting humans.

  • Wildflower meadow

Whether you want to swap your lawn for a native prairie or add a small wildflower meadow in your landscape, wildflowers add color and wildlife interest to brighten any space.

  • Rain garden

Rain gardens are another way to explore the diversity of the native plant species and local mulch, stone, or rocks in your area. Rain gardens manage stormwater runoff on your property but also benefit local ecosystems, waterways, and wildlife. Use pollinator-friendly native plants in your rain garden and invite more wildlife to eat, drink, or nest in your landscape.

Learn more about native plants in your city

  • Go birding

What do birds have to do with native plants? Native species are part of their habitat; without them, they wouldn’t have a place to live, nest, or food to eat. Check out your state or local Audubon or ornithological association. They host birding trips (where you can observe how they interact with local plant life), visit wildlife sanctuaries, and teach about ornithophily (how birds act as plant pollinators). They often host native plant sales as well.

  • Take a walk in an arboretum

There’s no better place to learn about native plants than a state or local arboretum. You may learn about invasive species in your state as well since these species are as important for public education as the native ones.

  • Trees and bees

Major cities often have tree organizations to restore the tree canopy in their city. If you’re interested in native trees, this may be a good place to volunteer. Similarly, bee societies are plentiful in cities (and less developed areas), and are a great place to learn about native plants and the insects that call them “dinner.”

  • Native plant societies

Native plant societies have a mission to conserve native plants, but they can’t do it alone. They need extra hands and hearts to dig, propagate, rescue, and care for native plant ecosystems in your community. 

Finally, don’t forget to check out our articles on lawnlove.com

Too busy diving into native plants to focus on your small patch of grass? Let Lawn Love’s local lawn care professionals take care of the lawn while you focus on creating a native sanctuary in your landscape.

Main Photo Credit: NatureFriend | Pixabay

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.