Exploring the Benefit of Native Plants Across US Regions

Exploring the Benefit of Native Plants Across US Regions

December 22, 2023

Introduction:

Native plants are increasingly garnering attention from gardeners, conservationists, and communities for their multifaceted economic, ecological, cultural, and aesthetic benefits tailored to local environmental conditions. But what qualifies as a “native plant” can vary across the diverse ecosystem regions of the United States. This article explores how native plants are defined, why they matter, and their extensive assets specific to the major climate zones and geography of the Lower 48 states. Understanding regionally-adapted native flora can guide more sustainable, biodiverse landscaping practices across the country.

Defining “Native” in a US Context

In the US, native plants are generally defined as species originating and naturally occurring in a particular ecosystem or region prior to modern human globalization and trade. They have evolved in situ to regional climate patterns, soil types, seasonal weather fluctuations, fauna, fire regimes, and hydrology over hundreds or thousands of years without human introduction. How narrowly “native” is defined depends on the geographic scale under consideration – native to an entire country, a specific state, or a single watershed. National organizations consider native status quite broadly, while state agencies drill down to county-level endemic plants.

These native species comprise the diverse floristic kingdoms of the country, from desert wildflowers in the Southwest to carnivorous pitcher plants in the Southeast to hardy cacti and yucca in the Southern Plains. They participate fully in the biodiversity, food webs, pollination networks, and ecological processes of habitats across mountains, prairies, wetlands, and forests specific to a location. Their innate, generational adaptations to regional conditions before modern plant breeding makes native plants exceptionally hardy, resilient additions to US landscapes once established.

Exploring the Benefit of Native Plants Across US Regions (1)

Benefits of Native Plants Across U.S. Regions

Native plants provide numerous benefits across the major regions of the United States. In Alaska, the western hemlock offers valuable timber from its trunk and bark that is used for medicine and dye. Black cottonwood provides pulpwood for paper products. In the Midwest, northern white cedar has resinous wood ideal for furniture, shipbuilding, and fence posts. Oregon white oak’s sweet acorns nourish livestock and wildlife. The desert willow of the Southwest helps prevent erosion. The rocky mountain juniper of the Rocky Mountains has aromatic wood for cedar chests. And in the Southeast, the black tupelo produces sustainable honey and fruits consumed by birds and mammals. Across all regions, native plants support local ecosystems, requiring minimal water and maintenance while sustaining wildlife, curbing invasive species, and enhancing natural beauty. By choosing native species, gardeners and landscapers from Alaska to Florida can create healthy, vibrant habitats for people and nature alike.

  • Northeast/New England – Native wildflowers, ferns, shrubs and hardwood trees like birch, maple and oak support iconic wildlife from moose to migrating songbirds to pollinating bees and butterflies through specialized plant-animal relationships. Woodland wildflowers control erosion on forest floors, while grasses stabilize dunes along Atlantic coasts.
  • Southeast – Lush native grasslands, evergreen shrubs, magnolias, wildflowers and carnivorous plants nurture unique biodiversity, from bobwhite quails to red-cockaded woodpeckers to rare Carolina bog frogs. Peat-accumulating wetland plants also mitigate flood damage by absorbing storm surge.
  • Florida – Mangroves, saw palmetto and lush tropical foliage withstand hurricanes while nourishing marine fisheries and iconic species like Florida panthers, manatees and pelicans, which draw vital tourism. Their shades also cool cities amid warming.
  • Northern Plains – Hardy drought- and flood-adapted wildflowers, grasses, succulents and shrubs prevent erosion of crucial agricultural lands in America’s breadbasket while supporting pollinators. Deep-rooted natives also sequester carbon.
  • Southern Plains – Resilient shortgrass prairie and oak savanna plants with small moisture footprints sustain regional ranching lifestyles by providing grazing and nourishing iconic wildlife like prairie chickens and buffalo that represent Western heritage. Hardy desert plants inspire xeriscaping.
  • Southwest – Extremely drought-adapted cacti, agaves, woody shrubs and wildflowers thrive in deserts, stabilizing soils and nourishing iconic (and protected) species like bighorn sheep, roadrunners and desert tortoises. Their radiant blooms and sculptural forms are also tourist attractions.
  • Pacific Northwest – Mighty native trees like Redwoods, Douglas Firs, Bigleaf Maples provide carbon-storing old-growth forests nourishing salmon, owls and more. Shade-providing ferns and woodland wildflowers prevent erosion with extensive root networks while enhancing the trademark misty understory.
  • California – Iconic superblooms of poppies, lupines and ranunculus dazzle, but short-lived Chaparral shrubs withstanding extreme drought and fire cycles also erase human error by revegetating aftermaths naturally. Coastal maritime plants buffer storm impacts.
  • Great Lakes – Hardy cattails, water lilies, sedges and wildflowers form wetland filters absorbing agricultural runoff protecting freshwater integrity and economies dependent on clean water, while vascular plants oxygenate inland seas, benefiting fisheries.
  • Mountain West/Rockies – Alpine wildflowers, conifers, aspen stands and shrubs cloak rugged peaks, preventing erosion of thin soils and forming Colorado River headwaters supplying water to 40 million downstream. Their resilience against climate change is crucial.
  • Alaska – Trees like western hemlock and Alaska cedar provide important timber for furniture and boats. Shrubs like black cottonwood and bunchberry help control erosion and provide food for wildlife. Wildflowers like heartleaf arnica add color to the landscape.
  • Midwest – Trees like northern white cedar and black oak provide strong, durable wood for fencing, railroad ties, cabinetry, and more. Shrubs like cranberry viburnum produce edible fruit. Wildflowers like cup plant attract pollinators.
  • Pacific Northwest – Majestic trees like Douglas fir provide strong timber for construction while supporting wildlife. Shrubs like salal have edible berries. Wildflowers like red columbine add vibrant spring color.

Conclusion:

From the rugged Alaskan tundra to the subtropical Florida wetlands, native plants form the backbone of thriving natural habitats across America. Each region of the country boasts its signature native trees, flowers, grasses, and succulents that nourish wildlife, stabilize soils, filter water, store carbon, and enhance natural beauty through the seasons. By landscaping backyards, parklands, roadsides, and public lands with plants adapted over millennia, we not only support local biodiversity and ecosystem health, but also honor the country’s diverse natural heritage. Whether drought-defying cacti in the Southwest, piney woods in the Southeast, alpine wildflowers in the Rockies, or all-season maples in New England, native plants sustain both wildlife and human communities generation after generation across the American landscape.

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    About the Author

    Cameron

    Cameron is a plant journalist who loves everything green and eco-friendly. He writes for various publications about the benefits of native plants, such as enhancing biodiversity, reducing water use, and supporting pollinators. He also runs a special column about Native Plants of the Month on Askseeds.com Cameron believes that everyone can make a positive difference one seed at a time.

    RELATED READING

    SPECIES SPOTLIGHT

    NATIVE PLANT OF THE MONTH

    LEAFY LETTERS

    Join our Newsletter

    Become an integral part of our community of fellow plant lovers, where every edition is a botanical adventure waiting to unfold. Discover exclusive gardening tips, stay updated on the latest plant trends and answering readers questions on Ask Seeds!

      Ask Seeds LEAFY LETTERS