The Plant Native

Why are native plants hard to find?

You’re excited. And you’re ready: you’ve mapped out your new native garden, you’ve decided on your plants (maybe even pulled out some colored pencils and made a garden plan.) And then you show up to your local gardening shop and find… nothing from your ideal garden list.

It happens to us all. Sadly, native plants account for just ~25% of plant sales in the United States (it’s even lower on the West Coast.) There are some great online places and local resources—you just need to know where to look. So don’t despair, scroll on for some native plant-sourcing ideas.

Naitve Fringe Trees are stunning—but sadly, you may only encounter their non-native Asian cousins at nurseries

Dig Deeper

Explore resources for finding, buying, and sourcing native plants

Table of Contents

First off, let’s tackle the ‘why’ behind the frustration:

Why are native plants so hard to find?

The short answer is native plants have not been as sought after as non-native plants. Interest drives demand, and due to exotic-plant mania most plant and seed sellers have mostly stuck to what sells: non-native plants. 

Native plants are coming back into fashion after ~300 years of exotic plant trends. This trend traces back to early European colonists and two cultural components:

  1. European landscaping sensibilities, brought over by early European colonists
  2. Terrible, offputting naming

Don’t believe that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are a part of American lawn care? Neither did we! But the pictures below speak for themselves.

American lawncare is inspired by… Versailles

It’s hard to believe that the exotic plant trend has been going once since the 1600s. Early American garden design tried to mimic the heavily landscaped, topiary-filled, manicured garden design found in Europe.

This euro-centric trend has continued to this day. Take a walk down any American suburban street to find the sculptured boxwoods, tightly organized petunias and tulips, and pruned yews. (And don’t get us started on lawns!)

You’ve got to see it to believe it:

The let-them-eat-cake gardens of Versailles in France...
Inspired the lawn-centric, overly manicured landscaping in America

Lawn grass and boxwoods—none of these are native to North America, but they have overtaken North American landscaping for hundreds of years. This is why you’ll find aisles of non-native plants at big box stores and local nurseries—and why native plants are hard to find. Heavily manicured, non-native landscaping is what American culture thinks a yard should look like.

Thankfully, this 300+ year-old trend has started to turn. COVID-19 probably had a lot to do with it. 

The silver lining of Covid

In the spring of 2020, most of us were forced home (sincere thanks to first responders). In this collective stillness, we had a chance to become more aware of the natural world. Suddenly we noticed trees budding, birds making nests, and flowers growing. The natural world became timely, crucial, and beautiful.

And native planting started to take off, hopefully this time for good. 

There is one other reason why native planting hasn’t gotten its time to shine.

It has to do with marketing.

Blame bad copywriters from earlier generations

When early colonists found the verdant terrain of North America, they marveled at the beauty and lush landscapes. But many early colonists’ sights were set on one thing: farming. 

When these early farmers came across the beauty of North American plants, they picked terrible names to malign native plants that stood in the way of fields. This is why we have some terrible, offputting names for beautiful North American native plants, like:

You’ll notice the word weed is used many times for beautiful flowering plants (that happen to be crucial for butterflies.) This dismissive naming has not helped Americans embrace planting native plants. 

Think naming and marketing isn’t that powerful? Ask yourself…

Which would you rather plant?

We blame the copywriters for this false marketing! The reality is:

Butterfly Bush is an invasive species, that acts like soda for butterflies (barely any nutrients, doesn’t support growing populations.)

Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, and the only plant monarch moms lay eggs on. Without milkweed, there will be no monarchs. There are also 100+ species in North America—no matter where you live in the continental US, there is a milkweed species for you.

And Milkweed is stunning, as you can see from the pink Swamp Milkweed in this picture

Try to find plants and seeds from within 1,000 miles of where you live

This 1,000-mile range will help find plants that are aligned to your climate, water, and sun, and help ensure their DNA will help them thrive. An Eastern Redbud from Pennsylvania does not have the same resilient DNA as a Redbud grown in South Carolina. This also helps locally grown plants mix and cross-pollinate with others in their species to create even more resilient seeds and plants for future generations.

Committing to the 1,000-mile radius means you might need to pass up seeds and plants from Target or Home Depot—unless they have a sticker or label that tells you where they came from. 

Online native plant sources, organized by region

Midwest

Online seed and plant sellers:

Southwest

Online seed and plant sellers:

What are some native plants that are musts for your garden?

Heuchera 'Green-Spice' by Patrick Standish

Alum Root (Heuchera)

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

ninebark-5755860_1280

Ninebark

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Sweetbay Magnolia

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Tulip Poplar

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Winterberry

To sum it all up—native plants are hard to find because consumer desires have yet to prioritize them in landscaping. Let’s change that trend! We can make native plants the standard for landscaping in our lifetimes. Talking to friends, neighbors, local businesses about the benefits of native gardening will go a long way to furthering the cause. Beauty matters! Change your yard, add some yard signs to help others identify what you’ve planted, and the stores will start to catch up with the new trend. Happy native plant trendsetting!

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