Native Plants: Supporting Local Ecosystems and Restoring Habitats

Native Plants: Supporting Local Ecosystems and Restoring Habitats

January 8, 2024

Across the country, there is a growing movement centered around native plants and their essential role in local habitats. Native plants, defined as plant species which have evolved and diversified within a specific region over thousands of years, provide immense environmental and ecosystem benefits. Understanding what native plants are, why they are so important, and how we can support them yields insights into habitat restoration and how individual actions intersect with the health of our surroundings.

Defining Native Plants and Appreciating Their Value

Native plants, also called indigenous plants, are plant species that have evolved naturally in a region without human introduction. They have adapted over time to thrive in the geography, hydrology, and climate of their habitat. In areas of North America, native plants may provide the primary food and shelter sources for over 90% of larval butterflies and moths, in addition to native bees, birds, and other wildlife. By planting native species, gardeners can provide resources and nesting grounds for struggling local pollinators and animals.

Beyond supporting biodiversity, native plants foster healthy ecosystems through a range of inherent benefits. Native species have adapted to sync their bloom times with local pollinator lifecycles. They have also developed natural defenses against prevalent diseases and pests in their regions, requiring little to no pesticide or fertilizer inputs. With deep root systems, native plants stabilize soil, prevent erosion, and capture more water than ornamental varieties. All told, native plants sustain complete ecosystems while requiring fewer resources to be grown or maintained.

The Value of Native Plants for Local Environments

Beyond their critical role in the food chain, native plants confer advantages ranging from water conservation to the prevention of erosion. As climate change leads to hotter temperatures and record droughts across parts of the country, native plants provide many benefits:

Water Conservation

Over time, native plants have adapted the capacity to thrive in local precipitation patterns. As a result, they typically require little to no irrigation beyond initial planting, conserving water in drought-prone areas. Native trees and shrubs also promote infiltration of rain into topsoil and aquifers by slowing runoff.

Soil Health

The deep roots of native plants limit soil erosion while capturing nutrients from subsurface soil layers that would otherwise leech away. Stimulating soil biological activity, native plants also support populations of bacteria and fungi necessary for nutrient cycling.

Pest and Disease Resistance

After evolving alongside local pathogens and pests, native plants have developed resistance to these threats to survive in their native habitats with minimal intervention. This obviates the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Climate Resilience

As climate change accelerates, non-native plants may struggle due to temperature swings, changes in precipitation, and other effects. Native plants’ resilience to these fluctuations makes them cornerstones of habitats adapting to climate change.

Habitat Restoration

Restoring native plant communities establishes resources and shelter needed by local wildlife populations. Small actions compound, ultimately reversing the decline of at-risk species.

Stormwater Mitigation

Native plants absorb rainwater through their root systems, rather than letting it collect and transport pollutants into local waterways. Slowing runoff also mitigates flooding and erosion issues.

The Challenges in Cultivating Native Plants

While supportive of rich ecosystems, native plants can pose difficulties to grow in designed landscapes. Over generations, native plants have adapted to the climate, hydrology, geology, and soils of their natural ranges. Conditions in urban and suburban areas may differ substantially from native habitats. Gardeners must amend planting sites, choose appropriate native species, and control invasive competitors to give native plants their best chance at thriving.

When grown far outside their natural extent, native plants may not adapt to local day length cues or rainfall patterns. Even obtaining native plants can pose challenges. As demand increases, native plant nurseries struggle to ramp up. Large chain retailers rarely carry native species, and native plant divisions from local gardens remain scarce. Competition with aggressive introduced species also threatens native plantings, necessitating persistent removal of invasive plants.

Common misconceptions about native plants present further barriers. Some see native species as messy or unrefined for ornamental beds. Compounding matters, popular non-native plants often crowd markets, making native alternatives appear unavailable. Through education and demonstration, native plant advocates can overcome these limiting factors to promote biodiverse, sustainable plant palettes.

Selecting Native Plants for Your Region

While daunting, the thousands of native species across North America offer much choice of form, texture, color, and size selection to incorporate into landscapes. To identify plants likely to thrive, ensure selections match local climate and growing conditions. Reference county-level land surveys from the ESP, NRCS, or regional field guides. Reputable native plant nurseries will suggest adapted species, as will campaigns like PlantNative. Before planting, understand the lighting, moisture, and soil needs of chosen species.

When assessing native plants, consider:

Climate Adaptation

Confirm selections are suited to winter lows, summer highs, humidity, and other climate factors

Sunlight Requirements

Note sun versus shade tolerances, blooming timelines, and photoperiod needs

Watering Needs

Native plants thrive with existing rainfall once established but may need irrigation initially

Mature Size

Account for height, width, growth habit, and invasiveness

Bloom Color and Season

Pick plants providing visual interest and food sources year-round

Soil and Site Preferences

Match soil texture, drainage, and landforms like woodland edges or wet meadows

For designed gardens, search wide swaths beyond your zip code for species suiting aesthetic visions. For ecological restoration, narrowly target native plants endemic to preserve-like project sites. Mix grasses, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees to establish layered, dynamic landscapes supporting diverse wildlife.

Guiding a Garden with Native Plants Using Sustainable Practices

Guiding a Garden with Native Plants Using Sustainable Practices

While native plants well suit goals like water conservation once established, designing an ecologically-friendly landscape requires holistic thinking. Sustainable gardeners must build healthy, living soils to nourish plants without chemical inputs. They can implement water harvesting to conserve rainfall when irrigation is necessary. Maintaining meadows or woodlands long-term also requires non-toxic strategies to prevent invasive plants from crowding out natives year after year.

By integrating these and other earth-sensitive techniques, gardeners create synergy supporting native plants already adapted to regional ecosystems. Such methods include:

Building Soil Health

Amend soil with aged compost to feed soil microbes and nutrient cycling while retaining moisture and suppressing disease. Avoid synthetic chemicals.

Reducing Water Needs

With absorbent organic mulch and drought-tolerant native plants, irrigation requirements plunge over time.

Planting Densely

Group native perennials, shrubs, and young trees densely to shade out weeds.

Replacing Lawns

In arid regions, natives and gravel gardens provide ecosystem benefits instead of thirsty, chemical-fed lawns

Managing Weeds Naturally

Sheet mulching, thermal weeding, and other non-chemical controls manage invasive plants while avoiding soil contamination.

Capturing Rainwater

Passive rain barrels and gardens arranged by drainage patterns slow runoff, prevent erosion, and recharge local aquifers by infiltrating water.

The collective impact of these regenerative methods accrues, ultimately fostering resilient, vibrant native plant communities adapted to site-specific conditions.

Case Studies in Successful Habitat Restoration

Helping declining pollinators to rebound. Rebuilding urban waterways devastated by invasive plants. Reforesting spaces following the wake of wildfires. These efforts demonstrate the positive impacts everyday citizens, conservation groups, and governments can have by collaborating to restore and strengthen local habitats.

Take the rusty patched bumblebee, whose population has plummeted by 87 percent since the 1990s. To revive this endangered pollinator, North Side Chicago neighborhoods have transformed vacant lots and alleys into bee lawns and meadows. Volunteers planted wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and other nectar plants the bees favor that are native to Illinois’ Chicagoland plains. Other nascent projects have nested bee houses between blooming perennials in borrowed community garden plots. Early results are promising: Citizen scientists have spotted growing numbers of the rusty patched bees foraging and nesting thanks to habitat restoration in the heart of the Windy City.

Similar collective action is coalescing along Washington’s Yakima River, critical spawning grounds for threatened steelhead trout. There, the Yakama Nation is leading revegetation efforts together with conservation corps and community volunteers to regrow native willows, dogwoods, and sedges that shade the river, stabilize its banks, filter pollutants from agricultural runoff, and provide wild foods like hawthorn berries birds distribute. Replanting the diverse native vegetation along tributary creeks flowing into the Yakima has lowered water temperatures to habitable levels for the steelhead. Scaled across the entire Yakima watershed, the collaborative efforts give promise to reviving steelhead populations to safe levels.

Take the first steps: How to cultivate native plants

Curious gardeners can take the first steps with native plants without sizable investments. Here is how to start your own native plant garden:

Observe the Area

Identify lighting, drainage, soil conditions, and other factors to select appropriate species.

Research Native Options

Search reputable regional resources like native plant societies or nurseries offering endemic natives.

Prepare Planting Sites

Incorporate compost into planting areas, remove invasive weeds, and arrange habitat features.

Purchase Seeds and Starter Plants

Time purchases for optimal spring and fall planting windows. Favor local ecotypes.

Sow and Plant

Follow planting guidelines like soaking seeds beforehand and gently firming soil around roots while avoiding deep planting.

Provide Initial Care

Water new plantings for a few weeks until established. Apply mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

Be Patient!

Many natives take 2-3 years to thrive. First-year growth may seem slow.

Remove Invasives

Frequently weed to prevent introduced plants from spreading into plantings.

Let Natural Cycles Develop

Native landscapes may seem messy at first but soon support interconnected ecosystems.

Expanding Out: Community Native Plant Initiatives

Helping native plant habitats thrive extends beyond individual gardens to embrace wider community participation. Concerned citizens can advocate for native plant-centric policies, volunteer on restoration campaigns, or donate to organizations expanding regional native landscapes.

Such collective efforts are coalescing worldwide as the importance of protecting whole ecosystems becomes increasingly apparent. In the Fynbos of South Africa, sweeping campaigns to clear thirsty pine plantations and restore native Protea and Leucadendron species have revived entire watersheds. In the American Midwest, coalitions are rallying support for augmented public meadows, roadway medians, and parklands abundant in native wildflowers and grasses to shelter Monarch butterflies during their migratory journeys.

At the neighborhood level, communities can advocate for municipal native landscaping ordinances reducing water usage, chemical inputs, and reliance on fossil-fuel intensive equipment. Concerned citizens may petition to limit invasive species sale in local nurseries. Volunteering with campaigns replanting native trees and perennials breathes new life into public green spaces struggling with tightened municipal budgets. Those more civically engaged can request zoning variances for converting sections of residential lawns to native plant micro-prairies.

On an individual level, outreach to friends, families and neighbors through the gift of native plants or guiding a short tour of your native garden can inspire others. Simple daily choices such as purchasing native plants from small-scale growers instead of big box stores quietly influence change through shifting supply and demand.

Resources for Learning More about Native Plants

A wealth of resources exists helping curious gardeners continue their journey with native plants. Reputable books like Lorraine Johnson’s 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants or William Cullina’s Understanding Perennials offer science-based guidance selecting regional plant communities. For identifying unknown plants, web tools like iNaturalist provide image recognition assistance, while all-in-one mobile apps like PictureThis bundle crowdsourced plant identification with care instructions.

Connecting with local native plant societies offers numerous benefits, from nursery lists to knowledgeable mentors, educational talks, or collective volunteer opportunities. State university agricultural extensions frequently provide native gardening instruction too. For home gardeners seeking native plants and seeds, small artisanal native plant nurseries are proliferating across the country, complemented by not-for-profit conservation nurseries associated with natural history museums or arboretums.

Participating in regional online native plant groups and forums accelerates skills in recognizing native species while allowing gardeners to share their experiences with seasoned green thumbs. Hashtag campaigns like #NativePlant365 document transformations of landscapes across the seasons while inspiring others. Ultimately though, frequent touching, smelling and watching native plants transforms they from strangers into familiar members of a dynamic, interconnected community centered around habitat health.

Conclusion: Shared Habitats, Collective Care

While home gardens may seem disconnected from sprawling wild habitats, embracing native plants regenerates linkages supporting birds, insects, and other wildlife upon which these very ecosystems rely. Out of sight, native plant roots secure soil, process nutrients, and cycle water to sustain creeks and aquifers. Along their surfaces, they offer nesting sites and critical food resources through nectar, pollen, seeds, berries and shelter. Patch by patch, each native plant landscape breathes greater life into declining ecosystems.

Ultimately native plant gardening transcends aesthetic aspirations to embrace collective care, supported by the science of how essential these plant communities are for local habitats. Beyond enjoying vibrant, low-maintenance landscapes, gardeners curate spaces sustaining birds feeding fledglings, butterflies seeking milkweeds, and bees provisioning hives. Through knowledge, patience and collaboration across fences, gardeners undo damage inflicted over generations. In its place, dynamic ecological communities rebalance themselves when given the chance. Although the task is great, we each have small, important roles to play when it comes to saving local habitats – one native plant at a time.





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    About the Author


    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 Cameron believes that everyone can make a positive difference one seed at a time.





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