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Do You Have Native Plants?

The answer might not be that simple...
by Heritage Perennials
November 6, 2018

It's one of the questions we get asked most often. Do you have any native plants?

The answer is not as simple as you might think.

In basic terms native plants have evolved naturally in your area, and have adapted to its soil and climate. As a result they require less frequent watering, once established, and minimal winter protection. This ease of growing explains the appeal of including natives in your planting scheme. They will thrive with little care, while introduced species from other climate areas may need more intervention from you to survive. A further benefit is that the inherent hardiness of native plants means you don't need to bother with fertilizers and pesticides to keep them looking their best.

Introduced plants are not always so maintenance free. I've always wanted Himalayan Blue Poppies (Meconopsis grandis). However these are notoriously difficult and prefer a cool summer climate. The hot, humid summers in Niagara are a certain death sentence. Stories of desperate gardeners, putting large blocks of ice next to their treasured specimens, are passed around garden circles to illustrate the lengths people will go to for that special plant. Meconopsis are native somewhere, just not here.

Besides being easy to grow, another reason for including native plants in your plant mix is that they provide vital habitat for birds and other species of wildlife. Native plants are a source of food for birds and bees, as well as a source of nesting material for many species.

So how do you decide what's native? A simple google search for 'native plants (and your province or state)' yields a list of plants. For example a search for native plants Ontario, turns up several sites that include Echinacea purpurea. The genus Echinacea is native to North America.

The species E. purpurea is native to eastern North America. So Echinacea purpurea can be considered a native plant here. But is this still true if that Echinacea purpurea is produced elsewhere? Genetically the plant has not changed. But the provenance - or where the seed or cuttings are obtained - is no longer local. Even if the seed source is in our province, the sheer size of Ontario can also affect provenance. Seeds collected from established plantings of Echinacea purpurea in Niagara may have adapted to milder temperatures. As a result these may not be as hardy in colder areas as seed collected from plants there. Zone-pushers (people who grow plants outside of their normal hardiness zones) are famous for their quest to find palm trees that will survive zone 6 (or 5) winters. There is a burgeoning trade in "hardy palm" seed from plants with a proven provenance to some cold region such as high elevations in China. While the parent palm may survive temperatures down to -18 Celsius, cold-hardiness is just one part of the equation.

Rainfall levels, winter snow cover, summer heat levels and annual sunlight hours are other factors that determine the success of a plant.

Closer to home, a drive out to the country will likely reveal large populations of plants. It's natural to assume these are native as they occur in the wild. But several centuries' worth of plant collecting and introduction to other areas has resulted in the proliferation of non-native species all over the world. At best these add a new look to the landscape. At worst they overwhelm native plants and become uncontrollable. Kudzu vine is one such plant. It's estimated Kudzu is spreading through the southern US at a rate of 150,000 acres per year - earning it the nickname 'the vine that ate the south'. Populations are now established in southern Canada as well. While these planst have naturalized, they are by no means native.

Let's get back to actual native plants. For the purposes of native gardening staying with non-introduced genera and species that occur locally is a great start. But even this approach can lead to disappointment.

In southern Ontario much of the land was covered by forests just a few hundred years ago. Many native plants here are woodland plants. These often bloom beautifully in spring, but as the forest canopy closes in they are robbed of sunlight. In response many of these plants are ephemeral - meaning the foliage dies off in summer. While dormant plants are perfectly healthy, they are difficult to get excited about at retail. Pots of soil don't get a second look.

In my own garden I collect plants I like but often the ones that perform the best are in some way native to the northeast. Many species of Anemone, Echinacea, Penstemon, Monarda, Aquilegia, Baptisia, Liatris, Asclepias and others are indigenous to the area. These are the plants that bloom predictably and make my job as gardener easier.

Including native plants should be on every gardeners to do list. But there is a lot to consider. Do your own research. Decide which native plants are right for your garden. Then take your list to your local independent garden retailer. Be prepared to be flexible, not all native plants are readily available through wholesalers, but your local expert should be able to offer some alternatives.

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