Swipe to view slides
  • ‘Winnifred Gilman’ Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii ‘Winnifred Gilman’) is native to California. Photo by: Mark Bolton/G.P.L.
  • Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is native to the Southeast. Photo by: Thomas Hovland/Grant Heilman.
  • Red trillium (Trillium erectum) is native to the Northeast. Photo by: Rob Cardillo.
  • Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) is native to the Rocky Mountains. Photo by: Susan A. Roth.
  • Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) is native to the Southwest. Photo by: Andrea Jones.
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis ‘Vulcan Red’) is native to Texas. Photo by: Clive Nichols/G.P.L.

If someone wants to grow native plants as a patriotic gesture, I say fine—that’s more beneficial than planting red, white and violet-blue petunias. But going native has been a popular pursuit for at least a decade before the events of September 11. What is it about native plants and their mystique that makes them so appealing and yet so misunderstood? At a nursery a few years ago, I overheard a determined customer quizzing a patient employee. “I want a plant for a hanging basket that blooms all summer with blue flowers,” she said. “And by the way, it must be native.” She wasn’t being chauvinistic. She just knew “native” was a popular category, and perhaps she had come, like many other gardeners, to equate the word with low maintenance.

But think about the leap a plant must make from a delicately balanced ecosystem to a hanging planter. The idea that natives need less care is often an illogical conclusion—they may actually demand conditions that precisely match their natural surroundings, and nothing else will do. On the other hand, once a native plant becomes well established in a location similar to its homeland, it will often thrive with less care than many other plants.

Before you rush out and plant your garden full of natives, start thinking locally. It’s not enough to put in something that is native to the continent of North America. Think in terms of your region. For instance, gardeners in Connecticut would do well with mountain laurel, a plant that is indigenous to southern New England. When I consider a plant for habitat restoration, I narrow the focus even more locally to plants native to within a 10-mile radius of a site.

Also consider provenance. For instance, although red maples (Acer rubrum) grow naturally from Maine to Florida, one that is a descendant of a nearby population would be a more appropriate choice for planting in the style of a local habitat and would grow better as well.

WHY GROW NATIVE PLANTS?

Plant preservation becomes crucial as habitats are destroyed by development. If we gardeners do not grow certain native plants, they could disappear from the earth. We would mourn the loss of any wildflower for its beauty alone, but nearly all plants have specific interactions with other beings, for example, as a food source for an animal. Take a link out of the food chain—lose an indigenous plant forever—and a reaction may occur that could ultimately lead up the chain to us humans. A considerable number of today’s pharmaceuticals are plant-derived, and the demise of a plant species may mean the loss of a yet-to-be-discovered curative.

It is a sin to collect a plant from the wild. But when a place is threatened, organized rescue groups around the country save plants. These folks get permission from developers to go onto a site, often hours before the bulldozers, and dig as many plants as possible. The saved plants are then distributed to new homes in public and private gardens.

What about creating a sense of place? You can travel across the country and see millions of mirror-image “lawnscapes” with shrubs rigidly pruned beneath high-limbed trees. Often, you would not know where you were without a plane ticket or a road map. But you also may see an occasional tall-grass prairie planting in a Milwaukee suburb or a well-made desert garden outside of Phoenix. These oases of local plants may look different from their neighbors, but they always look right. Many Midwesterners choose tall-grass prairie perennials to use in traditional plantings. Purple coneflower, big bluestem, prairie dock, gayfeather, sunflowers and other prairie natives provide color for borders year after year in a climate that is too hot or too cold for many other perennials.

Native plants are especially popular where wildflowers are still abundant, and can be seen in public gardens, parks and preserves. People flock to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to view the wildflowers. Actually, the Southeast is second only to China in the temperate world for a richness of diverse plant species. On the other hand, where native plants are arguably least revered are places whose climates are moderate and support the widest range of plants from around the world. Once rich in indigenous flora, California has lost an estimated 80 percent of its local plants in some areas. Judging by the plants you see while walking the streets of Santa Monica, you are more likely to imagine yourself in the Mediterranean region or southeastern Australia than coastal California. Plants from all around the world have happily made themselves at home.

Perhaps the most important reason to grow indigenous plants is to reduce the stress on an area’s natural resources. As I write this column, a drought emergency has been declared in the state where my garden grows. I won’t be making any new plantings this year. I can already see the wisdom in growing local plants. Even with abnormal precipitation and with no additional watering from me, my woodland garden is faring beautifully beneath white pine and ash trees, in soil mixed to mimic that of the local forest floor. The trillium bloomed in spring. The jack-in-the-pulpits are about to do their thing with hooded spaths unfurling. Yellow wood poppies are still flowering, and even the local azalea is blooming.

Ultimately, the availability of water will determine what gardeners should do or are allowed to do. Planting natives to lessen the strain on resources—from water to gasoline for lawn mowers—may be the most patriotic thing a gardener can do.

And by the way, the woman at the garden center may have found what she was looking for in Evolvulus pilosus, a spreading plant related to morning glories that naturally occurs in little soil pockets—perfect for containers. This trailing native with gray-green leaves and little blue flowers hails from Montana, South Dakota, Arizona and Texas. It’s a pretty plant—and a smart choice in the right locality.

NATIVE PLANT LISTS BY REGION

CALIFORNIA

A mother lode of natives to admire in the wild or grow in your garden, from seaside daisy, at the beach, to bristlecone pine, arguably the world’s oldest living tree, at timberline. California has an amazingly diverse range of habitats—forest, meadow, grassland, chaparral, desert, streamside, salt marsh and many more. In total, this region is home to 5,862 native plants, the largest number of any state in the U.S.

Amazing fact: California’s climate and conditions are ideal for passionate plantspeople—you can grow a bristlecone pine in a pot on the deck—and good specimens of plants from all around the world.

Fear factor: Sudden oak death has affected large numbers of tanbark oaks, coast live oaks and black oaks in California’s coastal counties. Caused by a fungus-like organism similar to that which caused the Irish potato famine, it is mostly airborne.

Read: Gardening With a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes At Home by JL Lowry (University of California Press).

Get involved: Join the California Native Plant Society—visit www.cnps.org.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.

1. MONKEY FLOWER (Mimulus Calypso hybrid)

Although not the pure species, this mimulus hybrid flower retains the distinctive shape and vivid speckling of its wild ancestor. It prefers sandy, gravelly soils in a sunny spot.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.

2. CALIFORNIA FLANNELBUSH (Fremontodendron californicum)

This open, spreading shrub grows to 12 feet in dry, well-drained soil. The large yellow flowers make showy masses from May to June.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.

3. CALIFORNIA LILAC

Ceanothus in peak bloom in April in shades of blue (and the less common white) is an unforgettable sight, and there are many outstanding garden cultivars of the wild forms.

Photo by: John Glover/G.P.L.

4. BUSH ANEMONE (Carpenteria californica)

This evergreen shrub has anemone-like fragrant flowers, glossy leaves and attractive peeling bark.

See more California native plants.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

The northwest’s magnificent, damp forests, in a relatively mild climate, shelter lovely flowering shrubs. Rugged peaks display the best wildflower meadows this side of The Sound of Music.

Amazing fact: One network of mushrooms was found to cover 1,000 acres of forest soil.

Fear factor: Swamp sandwort is now extinct in Washington.

Read: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by J. Pojar and A. MacKinnon (Lone Pine).

Get involved: Visit the Washington Native Plant Society at www.wnps.org.

Photo by: D. Cavagnaro.

1. GOLDEN CURRANT (Ribes aureum)

Fragrant flowers, purple currants, edible when dry.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

2. MADRONA (Arbutus menziesii)

Smooth, sensuous trunk, bright fall berries.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.

3. LEWISIA (Lewisia cotyledon hybrid)

The showy white and pink striped flowers rise above neat rosettes of fleshy leaves.

SOUTHWEST

High or low desert, or even high mountains, aridity is the constant.

Amazing fact: The highest diversity of plants in the Southwest is hardly ever seen. Known as ephemerals, they can spend years as seeds, waiting for the right conditions to bring them to life for a few weeks.

Fear factor: Saguaro cactus rustling (aka stealing), for use in landscaping, is one of the latest threats to the fragile desert ecosystem.

Read: A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona, Anne Orth Epple (Falcon).

Get involved: Visit Arizona Native Plants Society at www.aznps.com.

Photo by: Phyllis Kedl/Unicorn Photos.

1. GOLDEN BARREL CACTUS (Echinocactus grusonii)

This slow-growing spiny cactus reaches 4 feet high and produces yellow flowers in April-May.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

2. CLARET CUP (Echinocereus triglochidiatus)

Hundreds of stems can form dense mounds. Red fruits are produced as well as flowers.

Photo by: D. Cavagnaro.

3. OCOTILLO (Fouquieria splendens)

A spiny shrub with unbranched green stems growing up to 20 feet. Vivid red flowers attract birds.

ROCKY MOUNTAINS

Long winters, limited rainfall and bright skies all combine to give us rugged conifers (such as the Colorado blue spruce, widely over-used in front lawns), and glorious, tenacious wildflowers and perennials.

Fear factor: Colorado is currently in the grip of a drought of historic proportions, with water resources at a 25-year low.

Read: Rocky Mountain Flower Finder, by J.L. Wingate (Nature Study Guild).

Get involved: Contact the Utah Native Plant Society www.unps.org.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

1. SCARLET GILIA (Ipomopsis aggregata)

Scarlet tubular flowers are scattered along the ends of 3-foot stems. Attractive to hummingbirds.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

2. HAREBELL(Campanula rotundifolia)

The nodding, delicate flowers are borne on branched stems and vary in color from white to deep violet.

SOUTHEAST

Extending as far north as Virginia (Zone 6) and south to the Gulf of Mexico, this generally warm region supports a diverse range of native plants. Habitats range from saltwater bays and freshwater marshes to cedar glades and rocky outcrops.

Amazing fact: Once a “river of grass” flowed from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, 120 miles long but less than a foot deep. The Southeast is such a flat landscape that draining just a few inches meant the difference between wet marsh and dry ground (see below).

Fear factor: Approximately 80 percent of forested wetlands in the Lower Mississippi River Valley have been cleared, drained and leveed.

Read: Southeastern Wildflowers by J.W. Midgley (Crane Hill Publishers).

Get involved: Contact the Georgia Native Plant Society www.gnps.org.

Photo by: George H. Harrison/Grant Heilman.

1. CAROLINA JESSAMINE (Gelsemium sempervirens)

In spring, cascades of scented yellow flowers are one of the sights of the Southeast, from Virginia to Florida. A twining evergreen vine, jessamine is easy to grow.

Photo by: Edward De Grey.

2. FRANKLINIA (Franklinia alatamaha)

This deciduous small tree grows up to 30 feet tall, but its leggy, upright habit is easily contained, and the showy white flowers, which appear over a long period, make it a good specimen shrub. The fall foliage turns burnished shades of mahogany and orange.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

3. CAROLINA ALLSPICE (Calycanthus floridus)

A deciduous shrub of woodland edges that reaches 6 to 12 feet tall with glossy, dark green aromatic foliage. The bizarre dark red flowers with their many straplike petals are also fragrant. Garden cultivars are less likely to be aromatic.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

4. PIEDMONT AZALEA (Rhododendron canescens)

Flourishes all over the Southeast in the acid conditions of pine woodland. The pink-to-white flowers are strongly scented and are the first of the azaleas to bloom, starting in late March in upper Florida. It grows 10 to 12 feet tall.

PRAIRIE

The original grasslands where buffalo and thousands of wildflowers roamed.

Fear factor: Purple loosestrife, a pretty nonnative, chokes wetlands by shading out natives. It is now banned from sale in many Midwest states.

Read: Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest, C. Harstad and J. Ming (Indiana University Press).

Get involved: Contact Wild Ones, a nonprofit organization for native plant enthusiasts. Visit www.wildones.org or call 920-730-3986.

Photo by: D. Cavagnaro.

1. MAXIMILIAN SUNFLOWER (Helianthus maximiliani)

This perennial grows 3 to 10 feet tall and can form large colonies. Birds love the seeds.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

2. BLUE FLAG IRIS (Iris versicolor)

A native of ponds and water margins, this showy iris is also happy in containers under an inch or so of water.

Photo by: Fred Habegger/Grant Heilman.

3. BLACK-EYED SUSAN (Rudbeckia hirta var. pulcherrima)

A short-lived perennial that is easy to grow. It self-seeds and can colonize large areas.

TEXAS

In the “size matters” state, small wildflowers actually put on the best show.

Amazing fact: Texas has 5,524 native plants, second only to California.

Fear factor: Tumbleweed, loved as part of the Western landscape, is actually Russian thistle, a nonnative that escaped from cultivation.

Be informed: Check out the Web site of the Ladybird Johnson National Wildflower Research Center at www.wildflower.org.

Get involved: Texas Native Plant Soc., PO Box 891, Georgetown, TX 78627.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.

1. TEXAS BLUEBONNET (Lupinus texensis)

A blaze of blue and white in spring, this tough but beautiful plant colonizes well-drained, alkaline soils.

Photo by: Clive Nichols/G.P.L.

2. CARDINAL FLOWER (Lobelia cardinalis)

Likes plenty of sun and moist soil. The 30-inch flower spikes attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

NORTHEAST

Some of the most delicate and downright original shade-loving plants come from the Northeast.

Amazing fact: Pollinating insects are attracted to red trilliums because they mimic the color and smell of rotting meat.

Fear factor: The spread of invasive oriental bittersweet has been blamed on its use in dried-flower displays.

Read: The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing & Propagating Wildflowers of the US and Canada, W. Cullina (Houghton Mifflin).

Get involved: Visit the above society on www.newfs.org.

Photo by: Fred Habegger/Grant Heilman.

1. JACK IN THE PULPIT (Arisaema triphyllum)

This bizarre woodland plant prefers shade and damp, rich soil.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

2. DUTCHMAN’S BREECHES (Dicentra cucullaria)

Likes plenty of sun and moist soil. The 30-inch flower spikes attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Photo by: Mark Turner.

3. CANADA LILY (Lobelia cardinalis)

This showy lily bears up to 20 flowers per stem.

RELATED:
How to Grow Lilies
Native Trees

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