The Plant Native

Why plant native?

Here are three reasons to plant native:

  1. Native plants give birds and butterflies the food and homes they need to survive and thrive
  2. Native plants let you be a lazy gardener: they rarely require water besides rain once they are established
  3. Native plants are gorgeous: your neighborhood or yard will look incredible

Let’s explore these three reasons to plant native, and meet some amazing native plants along the way.

1.

Give birds and butterflies the food they need: plant native

Most butterflies need native plants to survive

Native plants are necessary food for many butterfly caterpillars. As we remember from elementary school, butterflies start as eggs that turn into tiny hungry caterpillars, who then munch away until they make a cocoon and emerge as beautiful butterflies. Unlike The Very Hungry Caterpillar, caterpillars in nature eat mostly leaves (and some flowers).

Some caterpillars eat only certain plants: these are their host plants

Some caterpillars only eat specific species of plants—these are called host plants. A host plant you may know is milkweedMilkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, so monarch butterfly moms only lay their eggs on milkweed. (Thankfully there are 100+ species of milkweed found throughout North America—everyone can plant some!)

Monarch caterpillars eat ONE thing: milkweed

Without Milkweed, there would be no monarch butterflies. This is why it is important for every American living in the continental US—from Maine to Texas, from Oregon to Florida—to plant milkweed in our gardens and help the endangered monarch butterfly.

Almost all host plants are native plants 

Milkweed is just one native host plant. Here are some native host plants and their butterfly mates found throughout North America:

Golden Alexander plants are a host plant for the Black Swallowtail butterfly.

Pawpaw trees are host plants for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Image by Megan McCarty)

Plant the native host plants for your area’s butterflies to help increase butterfly populations. Host plants and animals have evolved together over thousands of years to become almost monogamous with each other’s species. A native host plant and its butterfly are examples of these codependent relationships. These relationships require the host plants to thrive for the butterflies to survive. Explore the National Wildlife Federation’s Butterfly Database to find hundreds of host plants for your zip code or visit our list of butterfly favorites to find inspiration.

All this, and it only needs rain
2.

Native plants let you be a lazy gardener

Planting native saves water

No matter your politics, water bills are a real pain. You can enjoy a beautiful native garden without a shocking water bill. Most native plants only need normal rainfall in their area once established. (Don’t just take it from The Plant Native! The New York Times agreed, saying, “[native plants] save water, since native species, when they’re placed in an appropriate spot, generally don’t require watering once established.” 

Plant native, and chances are you won’t have to spend time putting in expensive hydration systems or hauling hoses and watering cans around your yard. Go on vacation and worry less about your landscaping being OK when you return. Most native plants are happy with rain.

A note from The Plant Native…

Some visitors have pointed out that even native plants need extra water during extreme heat or drought. They’re right—extreme weather requires additional care for all plants. We’ve updated our guidance: once established, native plants typically thrive with just rain, needing less water than many non-natives.

Planting native saves time

Now that we’ve talked about water, let’s talk about work. We’ve said it before: it’s a cultural myth that ‘gardens’ are hard work and ‘lawns’ are easy. 

The truth: native plants have grown in your home area with absolutely no human help at all for thousands of years. They lived for generations without fertilizer, sprinkler systems, or any annoying digging up at the end of the season. All they need to live, grow, and multiply is the soil, light, and water they prefer in their home area. Once you give them that, you can almost always forget about them once they are established, normally after the first year.

Native plants help give you a ‘green thumb’

If you feel gardening is frustrating, disappointing, a time-suck, or a waste of money: try native plants. Native plants are the easiest to care for and are literally made for your home area.

  • If you’ve planted things in the past that have withered and died, native plants are for you.
  • If you’re worried about your garden surviving while you take a vacation, native plants will help.
  • If you’d like to save money on landscaping, plant native perennials plants that come back year after year to be one-and-done with your garden.
This is totally attainable—and easy!—to have in your yard
3.

Finally, native plants are gorgeous

Native plants are not boring, or bleh-looking. There are dozens that have beautiful flowers and leaves every color of the rainbow.

  • Redbud trees have heart-shaped leaves and cover their trunks with tiny pink flowers during the first weeks of spring.
  • Little Bluestem grasses change color throughout the seasons, behaving more like a fashionista than a plant.
  • Heuchera love shade, are semi-evergreen and have leaves that come in dozens of colors.
  • Pawpaws make North America’s largest edible fruit! (it’s like a mango…that can grow in Nebraska.)
  • Fringe trees…well, you’re not going to believe what they look like (or smell like) in bloom

Some have incredible names, too! Here are some new favorites for your garden:

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower
Mountain Laurel
coneflower-native-plant-swallowtail-butterfly
Coneflower
monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant
Milkweed
rattlesnake-master-flowers
Rattlesnake Master
A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.
Sweetbay Magnolia
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Tulip Poplar

Planting native plants is an important way to give food and homes to birds and butterflies, while saving time and money on gardening. Your garden will look better than ever with native plants, too. Now is the perfect time to start your native garden.

Find inspiration on where to start: