GARDEN DOCTORS: What exactly is a 'native plant'?

Marcie C. from Healdsburg asks: Gardening with native plants is getting more and more popular. Can you tell me what exactly a "native" plant is? Why are they becoming so popular to grow?

In North America, a native plant is generally considered to be a plant that was already growing on this continent before the European settlers came. They are plants that grew here naturally, without people introducing them from other areas of the world. In specific areas of the United States, you'll find particular plants that were already growing there and not elsewhere.

Hiking is a great way to see native plants growing in their natural habitat. You can see where they like to grow and where they do not.

There are a few good reasons why native plants make for good planting in the home garden.

Natives are low-maintenance. If you love to garden, but don't have a lot of time after work to spend in the garden, you'll appreciate the ease of maintaining natives. Instead of trying this and that to encourage those hybridized plants to grow in your heavy clay soil, and if you'd rather spend your time pulling out a few weeds, deadheading a few flowers, and just doing some overall puttering, again, you'll appreciate the natives.

Plants that are native to a specific area prefer to grow in that specific area. Having "grown up" there and lived there, they've adapted to the local conditions over the years, leaving them strong and hardy enough to survive the winter chill, summer heat, drought conditions and poor soil. And once established, native plants have minimal irrigation and fertilization needs.

Not only are natives climatized to the physical conditions of their area, they're tolerant to the pests and diseases from that area as well. As a result, they've adapted their own natural defenses to resist most native pests and diseases, decreasing the need for you to spray any harmful pesticides. So, if it's hard for you to find the time for fertilizing, watering or doctoring, then you should definitely go native.

Natives are also inviting to wildlife by providing food and shelter for native animals. In a sense, they grew up together, adapting to each other to provide themselves with the best of what they both need for survival. The animals get the food and shelter that they need, and the plants get their flowers pollinated, their seed dispersed everywhere, and their pests eaten right off their leaves.

Nature works in a harmonious way, as the different plant parts serve to attract various types of wildlife. The flowers attract pollinators such as native butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and even some birds. The leaves can attract, or deter, deer, rabbits and munching caterpillars. The fruits and seeds attract birds and small mammals. Native plants also provide shelter and a place for all animals to raise their young.

If you would like to have a garden full of wildlife coming and going, then go native.

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