Northern Blue Flag

Why Native Plants?

Northern Blue Flag (Iris versicolor)
Northern Blue Flag (Iris versicolor)

There are misconceptions among people who don’t know what native plants are and why they are so important.

I think the first misconception is that native plants are ugly or un-worthy to grace a beautiful garden. For some strange reason many people seem to think that native plants are the scraggly plants by the roadside. These roadside plants like Garlic Mustard, White Clover and Spotted Knapweed  have  tiny flowers compared to the large blooms we often see in gardens.

None of these plants are natives, but aliens or even invasive species brought to this land for economic reasons or they were just stowaways on goods brought over.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Photo by Donna L. Long

These beautiful plants are natives.

  • Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
  • Rudbeckia “Goldstrum”(Rudbeckia fulgida, “Goldstrum”)
  • Sedum “Autumn Joy”
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Sundrops (Oenothera fruicosa)
  • Northern Blue Flags (Iris versicolor)

The second misconception is people wrongly think that a garden or even an ecosystem full of plants from other places actually works. The idea that one plant is just as good as another.

This could not be further from the truth. Here is an example.

Native plants and animals have spent thousands, maybe millions of years living and cooperating with each other. For an example take the common Monarch Butterfly, big, orange and beautiful.

The Monarch butterfly (Danus plexippus) female only lays her eggs on the underside of young healthy leaves of Milkweed plants. These plants include the Butterfly weed, Swamp Milkweed and Common Milkweed among others.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo by Donna L. Long
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo by Donna L. Long

The baby butterflies (called larva or caterpillars) eat the leaves of the Milkweed plants. A substance in the Milkweed plants called cardiac glycoside makes the flesh of the Monarch caterpillars and butterflies toxic and terrible-tasting to most animals fool enough to try to eat it. This is pretty handy when you are big and orange and don’t fight very well.

Many insects and native plants have similar relationships. Many insects can only eat the leaves or parts of certain plant families. Other plants may have chemicals that make the insects sick and die.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). Photo by Donna L. Long

Why is this important? Because songbirds eat insects and feed them to their young. If there are not insects to eat, because the are no plants for the insects to eat, then no more songbirds. And no more butterflies or moths.

Here is another way to think about it. When we plant non-native trees in our gardens and along our streets, what ecosystem are we creating? If you walk down a typical street in the United States and the London Plane tree is from Great Britain and the Tree of Heaven is from Asia, whose ecosystem are we creating? England’s? Japan’s? It is not the native local ecosystem where you live.

Will the native butterflies, moths, insects, mammals, etc. find the foods that their species have eaten for thousands or millions of years? No.

What happens to the ecosystem that flourished for hundreds or thousands of years? If it slowly dies out, what we have left to try to live in, is a mish-mash of plants that don’t necessarily work well together.

To help care for a healthy ecosystem we simply have to bite the bullet and plant native plants. A healthy land and ecosystem depend on it.

The book I use the most is  Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening & Conservation by Donald J. Leopold. I even have the sections tabbed.  Not all native plants are included, but plants which Mr. Leopold personally thinks look good in the garden and government landscape projects. There are other books covering other regions. A search for native plants in Amazon.com books, should bring up several titles.

2 comments

    • Hi, Donna

      From the photo on the back flap, Mr. Leopold looks like a real down to Earth, fun guy. I always wished I could take a class from him.

      Working with him would be even better.

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