Native Plants

We encourage you to Go Native in your plant selection!

What are native plants?

Native plants are defined by both time and place and are those trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, vines and ferns that were indigenous to an area and were present prior to the time of European settlement.  They are specific to geographic regions/habitats and co-evolved with other species in the region, adapting in concert to the soils, climate, fauna and other members of the plant community.  They have also developed defenses to many diseases and insect pests as part of that evolution.

The term “Native” is a relative one, as plants that are native in one “ecoregion” do not naturally develop in another due to the different climatic conditions.  In the US there are multiple levels of “ecoregions”.  For the best overview, go to the USDA Forest Service’s  US Ecoregions map.  When purchasing native plants it is best to buy from a source from the same ecoregion.  This may cross state boundaries.   For example, a nursery in nearby eastern PA will have plants that are in our ecoregion, whereas a nursery in Northern NJ may be in a different ecoregion.

Why should I  be concerned about the difference between native species and native cultivars?

Native species are found in the wild, occurring naturally.  They have true genetic diversity as they reproduce through seed dispersion in the wild and adapt to environmental changes.  Native cultivars are selected forms or mutations of a given plant that is chosen for a  particularly appealing trait (such as color, size, double flowers…) and reproduced artificially.  They lack the genetic diversity  and resilience of native species.  Recent research has show that cultivars developed by the nursery industry generally for their ornamental traits do not offer the same benefits to the wildlife members of the community in which they are planted, as true natives do.

What are Native Plant Communities?

Native plants grow as communities.  You would not find them growing singly surrounded by acres of mulch as is common in today’s commercial landscaping practices. The plants have similar needs and interact with each other and the very local environment.  These communities of plants grow and develop together as a response to soil, moisture, and climate conditions; disturbances such as fire, water and wind; and chance in the very local area in which they proliferate.  Each species thrives because it has sought out the conditions necessary for it to survive.  In so doing they create communities which we identify as forests, woodland edge, marshes, meadows…

Because they proliferate together as a result of unique local conditions, it means that plants from outside of that region may not do as well plants that evolved there.  Consequently, we need to baby our non native introductions with food, water, and other resources to help them thrive in an area where they were not meant to be.  Additionally, the wildlife that co-evolved with them may have a dependency on a narrow range of host plants. While others may be more generalists.

Why are native plants important?

  • Native plants support the web of life – the birds, butterflies, and the insects that support them. If you enjoy watching wildlife, natives will offer them the food, shelter and nesting sites that they need to survive and bring them into your yard.  Here in New Jersey, and across the country as well, we have lost considerable wildlife habitat and diversity.  Creating a wildlife habitat in your yard will help to ease the loss.  Our backyards are small, but together we can create a network of home landscapes that will provide what they need to complete their life cycles.   Be sure to plant a variety of native plants that will provide a year-round source of food – the nectar, seeds, and fruits that they need, in addition to diverse types of cover.
  • Native plants are low maintenance and cost less to maintain.   Because they are well adapted to our local area, natives are more resilient and have better natural defenses against plant diseases and harmful pests.  Their planting is meant to echo how they would be found in the wild, so they need minimal care.   They seldom need additional water once established, existing and thriving on normal rainfall.  Natives also need no additional fertilizers and pesticides.  Decaying leaf litter and plant material provide needed nutritional supplement.  And, those who plant natives respect insects as an essential component in the web of life, that do not need eradication, but respect for the ecosystem services they provide.Many natives are essential host plants for butterflies and other insects, which in turn provide food for birds and their offspring.   Doug Tallamy, in Bringing Nature Home, reports that an oak tree supports 536 species of insects.   The milkweed is the only plant that monarch butterflies–already severely stressed by loss of habitat–will lay its eggs on.’    The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s publication, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed, is a useful resource of identifying regional natives.
  • Native plants help to improve water quality. Plant a rain garden to keep rainwater on your property.  They help to prevent pollution while reducing storm water run off and filtering out impurities like lawn chemicals.  Native plant roots also help prevent erosion by holding soil in place.
  • Native plants can fit in with suburban landscaping standards.  Many people think of native gardens as being unkempt and overgrown.  However, native plants can fit in with typical foundation beds and borders as well as wildflower meadows.    Native trees make excellent specimen trees and shrub borders, ground covers, water gardens, look more natural with native plants.   In fact, naturalistic landscaping using patterns found in nature, is exceptionally appealing.  However, whether your garden style is form or information, you can always incorporate native plants into your plant selections.
  • Plant in layers...