Should I Be Planting Natives?

Question: I’ve heard that we should all be planting more native plants in our yards. What are they and why are they preferable to non-native plants? What native plants do you recommend for a sunny yard?

Glad to hear that news about native plants is getting around! There are many lovely native plants, and they are gaining in popularity and availability.

What are native plants?

Native plants are plants that naturally evolved in a particular area over time. They are adapted to local conditions — climate, soil, and interaction with other native species of the area. Native plants truly thrive when they grow where they evolved!

Non-native plants are sometimes called “exotic,” “non-indigenous,” or “alien.” These plants were introduced to an area either accidentally (e.g., in packing materials or on ships) or intentionally (e.g., as a commercial agricultural crop, landscape or nursery plant).

Why are native plants preferable to non-native plants?

Native plants, because they have adapted to their surrounding environment over time, are often more rugged than non-native plants, able to resist drought, insects and diseases. For these reasons, native plants are generally low-maintenance.

Native plants typically require less water, fertilizer and pesticides than non-native plants because they are adapted to our microclimate. This makes them less costly to maintain and they require less inputs that could disrupt our local environment.

Additionally, animals that have evolved alongside these native plants, have come to rely on these plants for food and shelter. If non-native plants crowd out the native ones, wildlife may lose their preferred sources of food and shelter. Many butterflies come from caterpillars whose survival depends on a 99% native plant diet! Fewer native plants mean less biodiversity in the landscape. A less diverse environment supports fewer numbers and species of insects, birds, and other wildlife because wildlife cannot find the food and shelter it needs to survive. This cycle has negative impacts on animals, humans, and local ecosystems.

Photo Source: Virginia Native Plant Society

Some non-native plants are considered invasive. Invasive plants have a competitive advantage over native plants and ultimately can disrupt the native plant communities and the wildlife that depend on them. Kudzu (Pueraria montana), for example, grows quickly over forest canopies, shading native plants and diminishing their photosynthetic activity. These plants will weaken them over time as they expend more energy than they can replenish.

For a more in-depth look at the importance of native plants, view this video produced by the Piedmont Environmental Council.

What native plants might thrive in a sunny yard?

Lots of them! So many, that you can even select plants based on a color scheme or whether you are hoping to attract butterflies, insects, hummingbirds or other birds.

Several native, sun-loving perennials that attract a large variety of insects (butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, beetles, flies, grasshopper and/or walking sticks) include:

1. Aster (Aster spp.): bloom late in summer and into fall and attract butterflies, birds (such as chickadees, titmice, grosbeaks, buntings, cardinals, finches, sparrows, towhees, nuthatches), and hummingbirds.
2. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): pictured below, attracts over 400 different types of insects, as well as hummingbirds.
3. Golden rod (Solidago spp.): attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects. Though it is often thought to cause seasonal allergies, it doesn’t! Ragweed is very close in appearance to goldenrod and is the real culprit of seasonal allergies.

For more ideas on which native plants to choose for your sunny garden in Central Virginia, visit the Piedmont Virginia Native Plant Database.

Hopefully, you will want to learn much, much more about the benefits of native plants and how they are critical to create healthy habitats and support ecosystems for wildlife. Doug Tallamy’s books, Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope, provide the knowledge gardeners need to understand the importance of native plants and actions individuals can take, starting in our own backyards.

References:

“Backyard Wildlife Habitats,” Eaton, Greg & Wright, Barbara, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, 426-070, 2020.

“For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats,” Mary Free, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Extension Master Gardener, HORT-59NP, 2013.

“Native Plants: for Conservation, Restoration & Landscaping,” Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation & Virginia Native Plant Society, 2011.

“Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens,” Plant Virginia Natives, Plant Northern Piedmont Natives, 2019.

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