Gardening with native plants has a number of advantages, but gardeners are often intimidated or overwhelmed with myths about native plant gardening, so they’re afraid to take the plunge. I talked with Ania, a researcher at the University of California, to get the scoop on working with native plants in the garden; such plants are indigenous to an area and not introduced by humans, although in some regions “native plants” include those that may have been cultivated and introduced by Native Americans, but not Europeans.
I asked Ania to elaborate a bit more on the different types of native and introduced species, because yes, there is a hierarchy, and it’s important for gardeners to think about it whether they’re planning a garden installation or prioritizing the management of existing plants. She explained that some introduced species are invasive, having a tendency to spread rapidly and aggressively, while others thrive primarily only in cultivation; the Missouri Exotic Pest Plant List has detailed information about the rankings used to help guide gardeners.
Ania notes that “not all introduced species are created equal but gardening with natives is still the way to go” when it comes to garden planning. For gardeners who might feel intimidated by the thought of converting a garden, she suggests focusing on invasive species removal and leaving other introduced species alone, as they’re unlikely to pose a threat. Garlic Mustard, for example, aggressively changes soil chemistry to prevent competing seeds from germinating, and should be removed, while plants like amaranth don’t threaten indigenous species. Over time, gardeners can slowly transition to an all-indigenous garden if that’s their ultimate goal.
She points out that working with indigenous plants has some advantages. For one, it creates habitat for animals, a critical issue in areas where natural habitat is shrinking. Gardeners can attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators with a selection of native plants, in addition to pleasing the eye. Furthermore, working with native species can also reduce water usage without installing water-saving plumbing systems like greywater systems, by allowing gardeners to focus on species known to survive in local climate conditions. For gardeners in areas like Dallas, where droughts can be an issue, native plant gardening is actively encouraged by some municipalities.
One of the most common myths about native plant gardening is that it makes a garden dull, lifeless, and boring. “Are you interested in providing a habitat for butterflies and friendly bees?” Ania asks. “Planting a variety of showy blooms would do wonderfully for that.” Those showy blooms can be native species.
“Are you interested in plants that will look sprightly and lovely even in drought conditions?” Indigenous plants work for those too; in California alone, she notes that plants like Douglas iris, pearly everlasting, and Calochortus species do well in cultivation and look stunning, along with many other species, whether you want a riot of flowers, lush greenery, or stately trees.
Interested in gardening with indigenous plants? Contact a local Native Plant Society to get lists of plants indigenous to your area. The more local, the better, as many microclimates host unique species. Native Plant Societies often sponsor plant sales, garden tours, and other events to promote beautiful local species, and some also provide mentoring or consultations for free or a small fee.