When we choose the plants we put in the garden, there can be many attributes we are after. Are we looking for a good shade tree? Are we looking for beautiful flowers or rich autumn foliage? Do we want to attract pollinators? Do we hope to grow something to eat?
There are also qualities we may wish to avoid. Some plants are invasive, capable of suffocating other plants with rampant reproduction or by vining up them with such volume. Some plants might make unpleasant smells or drop things that can stain whatever they land on. Some plants can grow too large, are susceptible to disease, require lots of rain, or can’t handle freezing temperatures.
One of the characteristics many gardeners are paying attention to these days is whether or not a plant is native to the region. Native plants, of course, are naturally occurring somewhere, but why is this feature desirable? Are there gardening advantages to planting native species? Well, yes.
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1. Native plant species support native animal species.
Just as different regions have different native plants, they also have different sets of native animals. These animals have evolved to utilize the natural plants or, in the case of carnivores, native animals that survive on native plants. As we “develop” areas for human needs, we deplete the developed environments upon which native animals rely. The least we can do is use our lawns, parks, and gardens to soften that blow.
2. Native plants cooperate with other native plant species.
Animals are not the only natural lifeforms that rely on native plants. Other native plants do as well. Plants that simultaneously occupy a natural ecosystem have evolved together to coexist and cooperate, fulfilling different niches and working together to establish healthy forests, wetlands, and prairies. When we plant native species, we are helping other native plants thrive.
3. Native plants interact with regional fungal species.
From native plants and native animals, we also have to remember native fungi. Just like plants and animals, different mushrooms (and other fungi) do best in certain conditions. Some like it colder or wetter, while some like to feed on certain types of trees and organic matter. To thrive, they need the native plants, as well as the regional climate. Fungi is the glue that holds forests together.
4. Native plants restore the soil.
While it’s true that all organic matter will break down and make soil, native plants have a special relationship with the soils they grow in. The collection of native plants has, for centuries, provided the composition of the regional soils to meet the needs of that plant (and fungal and microorganisms) profile. Again, with native plants, we are helping to maintain natural systems that have evolved to flourish. Our development is the disruption causing any failure in these systems.
5. Native plants enhance natural biodiversity.
In short, native plants enhance the natural biodiversity of an area. They feed the animals and the fungi and build the appropriate soil to feed the other plants in the system. With all of these pieces in place, the natural biodiversity has all of its needs met, and biodiversity is what makes a system stable because no one species in the mix decides the fate of the whole. The collective of native plants in the area has already fulfilled all the niches.
6. Using native plants prevents introducing invasives.
As the world has globalized and homogenized, our ecosystems suffer a similar fate. Humans have introduced tons of exotic species to native ecosystems, only to find out later they have caused a significant problem. Think kudzu and bittersweet vines that are devouring forests. Think about the chestnut blight in Appalachia or pythons in the Everglades. Invasive plants can eradicate cornerstone species of natural ecosystems.
7. Native plants grow comfortably in the local climate.
As gardeners, we can also take comfort in the fact that native plants are, by default, the right choice for the climate we live in. There won’t be issues with too little rain or too much heat, or inhospitable winters. Native plants are evolved to live comfortably in the climates where they grow. That means less work for us as gardeners. These native plants won’t need special watering regiments or protection from cold or chemical fertilizers.
While there is certainly room for us to cultivate food from other places, it makes a lot of sense to utilize native plants for the different aspects of our gardens. These natives, too, can provide lots of food, though it may not be— and often isn’t— what we find in supermarkets.
- 40% of World’s Plant Species at Risk of Extinction, New Report Finds
- 1 in 5 of the World’s Plant Species are in Danger of Extinction – and it’s Our Fault
- Chinese Government Offers Farmers Buy-Out to Grow Plants Instead of Breeding Wild Species for Consumption
- How Planting Crops Used to Feed Livestock is Contributing to Habitat Destruction
- How to Plant Efficiently With Permaculture Principles
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