The Plant Native

What is a native plant?

A native plant is a plant that has grown in an area for thousands of years. Native plants are built to thrive in their home area’s weather, temperature, and soil. They are also the preferred food and habitat for the bugs, butterflies, birds, and animals in their home area.

Everything you see here—Butterfly Weed (Milkweed), Blazing Star, and Coneflowers—are native plants

You’ve most likely heard the term ‘native plant’ and wondered what it means. In this article, we will discuss what makes a plant native, why native plants are important, and introduce a few native plants you may already be familiar with. Let’s dig in, shall we?

What is a native plant?

A native plant is a plant that has lived in its home area for thousands of years—through every drought, storm, and flood. Native plants live, grow, and reproduce without any human assistance. The only thing they need to survive is the soil, seasons, and water naturally found in their home area.

Native plants are necessary to help give butterflies, bugs, and birds the food and shelter they need to survive. Some of our most movie star-like animals—like monarch butterflies!—need native plants to survive.

Native plants are important food for butterflies, bugs, and birds

Every native plant is the preferred home or food source for the butterflies, bugs, birds, and animals in your area. The animals, bugs, and birds have evolved over thousands of years to eat the plants in their home area. Their sight may have evolved to see specific colors so they can spot the native plants they love, or they might build their nests in a species of tree that know will entice the bugs to help them raise their young. All of these relationships to native plants are encoded in the bugs, birds, and animals’ bodies. Planting native plants reveal surprising interdependent stories within our own yards.

Some native plants are host plants

Sometimes native plants are not just the best food, they are the only food for certain species of bugs, butterflies, or birds. A plant that is the sole source of food or home for an animal is called a host plant.

One of the most well-known host plants is milkweed. Milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, and monarch moms only lay their eggs on milkweed to help ensure their young survive.

But did you know there are 100+ native milkweed species in North America? Find your favorite in our milkweed guide and some immediately.

Monarch caterpillars only eat Milkweed

Some bugs, butterflies, and animals will eat or lay their eggs on non-native plants, too. For example, butterflies will sip flower nectar from any flower they can—native or not! Bees and other pollinators will visit and stumble around in the pollen of many flowers, regardless if it is from your home area or native to a place thousands of miles away. But only native plants provide the trifecta of housing for butterfly eggs + caterpillar food + adult butterfly nourishment.

If a plant is not native, what is it?

Any plants that are not native are native to somewhere else in the world. Here are the home areas for some popular plants.

Butterfly Bush is native to China. It’s also an invasive species, due to its ability to reproduce and overtake areas quickly.

Japanese Honeysuckle’s white flowers are now found everywhere, but it was brought to the US from Japan in 1800s. It is one of the most common invasive species in North America.

Boxwood shrubs—those sometimes shaped evergreen shrubs found in millions of suburban yards—are native to Africa, Asia, and Europe

Are non-native plants bad?

While some non-native plants may flourish, they are taking up space and nutrients from native plants that support our home area’s health. Non-native plants do not provide the homes and food that our pollinators and wildlife need to survive. When we remove native plants from the landscape, we also remove the butterflies, bees, and birds that make our areas thrive. Plant native whenever you can.

Non-natives can cost time, water, and money

Non-native plants can often require expensive interventions, like extra water or fertilizers. A tree native to a humid area in South America may come with thousands of years of expectations it will have consistent water. While it may look beautiful in a yard, it will need consistent water and care to thrive. Compare this work to a native plant—which only needs the weather and rain in its home area to thrive.

However: there are some truly bad non-natives. These plant villains deserve to be destroyed immediately.

Non-native *invasive* plants are bad

Some non-native plants are so harmful to our environment that they get a special designation of invasive. Invasive plants are so successful at growing and reproducing, they can choke out native plants and wildlife.

A perfect example of an invasive non-native plant is kudzu. Kudzu is native to Japan. It was brought to the US in the 1800s as an ornamental plant for landscaping. The weather in the south is similar to the weather in Japan, giving the plant the perfect environment for the kudzu population to explode.

This non-native invasive plant has sadly overtaken many fields, roadsides, and forests throughout America. Its vines quickly cover native plants and trees, killing them by blocking light. It is one of the most common invasive species in North America.

Even in a Mid-Atlantic winter, native plants like Winterberry and Carolina Jessamine look gorgeous

The benefits of planting native: time, water, money

And, as mentioned earlier, native plants literally plant themselves, so we can easily plant them too. Native gardening is a huge help when it comes to decision-making, time, water, and money. Let’s explore these four major benefits:

1. Planting native makes gardening easy

Gardening from scratch can be overwhelming. Plant nurseries and garden centers are flooded with options for our gardens, with little information on how to pick besides being called an ‘annual’ or a ‘perennial’.  Terms like hardiness zones or Latin names can make something as simple as planting a plant feel like a complicated test.

The first step to planting a native garden is deciding you will do just that: plant native! Sticking to native plants will instantly reduce the number of decisions you need to make. With this one decision, you can visit the nursery or shop seed catalogs and quickly find plants for your garden. There are also plant nurseries that specialize in native plants, to make it even easier. (Here is our easy four-step process to start a native garden.)

2. Planting native saves time

We’ve done the math: lawns can take up to 2400% MORE WORK than a native garden. All that mowing, fertilizing, seeding, and watering for a lawn adds up quickly. And not only that—you have to do that level of care every year to keep the lawn up. What a huge time-suck.

On the other hand, you can plant native perennial plants once, and watch them come back healthier and bigger year after year. Native plants do not require fussy gardening needs like fertilizing or chemicals. Spend an afternoon planting native and your garden can be set for literally years. Now sit back and enjoy your native garden and watch the butterflies, and think of all the time you’ll get back.

3. Planting native takes less H20

After getting established, all native plants need is rain. (Compare that to lawns: did you know that some lawn companies recommend watering lawns 3x a week in the summer?!) Native plants have flourished across thousands—sometimes millions!—of years and seen every sort of weather in their home area. They have survived every drought, rainy season, hurricane, or snowstorm. They will thrive in your yard.

4. Native plants save you money

Lawn care can quickly turn into $500-1,000+ a year. Non-native plants like tulips, roses, and dahlias can cost $3-8 per bulb, or $45+ for each plant. Non-native annual plants that only last a year—like impatients and petunias—have to be bought and planted every single year. It all adds up quickly, not to mention adding the water bill on top of it all.

Native plants are the secret to cheap (or even free!) gardening. There are so many ways to get free or cheap native plants:

  • Facebook gardening groups: Almost every community or county has native gardening groups on Facebook where gardeners post about giving away plants from their gardens—for free
  • Master Gardener Plant Sales: The federal government designates Master Gardeners as highly trained in horticulture. Counties across the US host spring plant sales, offering native plants priced as little as $1.
  • Non-profit/community Plant Sales: Dozens of arboretums and parks throughout the country host plant sales (typically in the spring and fall) with extremely well-priced native plants
  • Local plant nurseries: there are so many local, family-owned nurseries throughout the US that specialize in native plants; their prices range but are often very affordable (especially compared to lawns and non-natives!)
  • Most seeds cost less than $5. You can have a native-filled oasis for $20 just by planting seeds. Explore our native plant library to find your favorites. 
Coneflowers are one of the easiest plants—drought-resistant, easy to grow, and butterfly magnets

Native plants give everyone a “green thumb”

Planting native plants significantly increases your rate of gardening success. Have you ever joked about your “black thumb,” or watched plants wilt or die after you’ve planted them? It may be because they were non-native, and not built to live in your home area. Native plants will always be the best choice for where you live. They are best suited for the soil, weather, and seasons in your area. Often, after the first year getting established, all they need is the water from normal rainfall to thrive.

Finally, native plants are gorgeous

Every single zip code in America has dozens of show-stopper native plants that will light up a front garden, create a beautiful backyard oasis, or provide *the perfect* statement tree. 

There are huge trees with tulip flowers, shade-loving plants with leaves every shade of the rainbow, shrubs with flowers that smell like strawberry-pineapple, and flowers with names like Rattlesnake Master. Here are some native plants that will quickly become your favorites.

Heuchera 'Green-Spice' by Patrick Standish

Alum Root (Heuchera)

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Coneflower

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Milkweed

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Mountain Laurel

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Pawpaw Tree

rattlesnake-master-flowers

Rattlesnake Master

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Sweetbay Magnolia

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Tulip Poplar

Native asters should be our fall go-to...NOT non-native mums!

Why are native plants hard to find?

Native plants can be hard to find for a reason: on average, only 22% of plants sold in US nurseries are native to North America. (It’s even worse on the West Coast: the average is 13%.)

We can change this by asking our nurseries for native plants, and buying them when we see them. Supply will follow demand! 🌱

To wrap things up, native plants have planted themselves for thousands (sometimes millions!) of years. They are made to thrive in our gardens. Native plants give the food and homes to some of our most iconic animals, like Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies and hummingbirds. Planting native also saves time, water, and money—especially compared to lawns and non-native gardens. Always plant native. 

Looking for some more native plant inspiration? Explore our regional guides, or scroll on for thematic native inspiration.

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