Getting started with native plants
By Gregg Robertson, PLNA Government Relations
There has been much interest recently on the part of gardeners in using more native plants in their yards and landscape plans. Native plants can form a great foundation or addition to the home landscape, providing that you use care in plant selection and use the right native plant in the right place.
What is a native plant?
Defining a native plant is not as easy as it may seem at first. To be native, how long should a plant have been in Pennsylvania? Two hundred years? Two thousand years? Ten thousand years? We could say that a native plant is a plant that existed in Pennsylvania when Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World. Certainly, non-native plants began to be introduced into the North American continent as the European settlers brought some of their favorites with them. Plants like Queen Anne's lace were brought to this country by European settlers as garden plants, but escaped cultivation and now have naturalized along roadsides, in fields and other disturbed land.
Complicating the native plants issue further is the dramatic change in the ecology of Pennsylvania over the past 500 years. When Europeans first arrived in Pennsylvania, primeval hemlock and white pine coniferous forests stretched from the Delaware River west into what is now Ohio. These trees provided a continuous canopy over the land, except for breaks cut by rivers. There are only a few small areas left in Pennsylvania where you can experience this old growth forest, most having been logged off one hundred or more years ago. If you've been to one of these old-growth forest areas, compare it to your backyard. Pretty different, right? The plants that thrived in the dense shade of a coniferous forest with one-hundred foot, three-hundred year-old trees would not do well in the typical suburban front yard.
Bottom line is that it is almost impossible to be "pure" about using native plant species. You'll probably find that you need to include other North American plants that are more at home in the Midwest prairies if you have a sunny, open yard.
Why use native plants?
Using native plants in your landscape has several benefits. First, most native vegetation was probably removed from your land before your home was built. Unless you replace it, it will be gone. If this happens on one property, it's no big deal. But it is happening over and over again in entire developments and communities.
Second, the plants that typically replace the native plants removed during construction May not serve the same function in the the ecological network. If your land was in a meadow before construction, that meadow provided food and cover for a variety of birds, small mammals, insects, reptiles. We replace a diverse, complex ecological web with a grass lawn and a few species of plants. The ecosystem that existed on your property will be disrupted and perhaps extinguished.
Third, eastern deciduous forests and meadows have an esthetic look and feel that is grounded in place. Designing your landscape with native plants and indigenous materials will give your home a sense of place and belonging.
Choosing native plants for your landscape
As with making any plant selections, take into account soil type, water needs and sunlight requirements when deciding on which native species would do well in your yard. For example, native trilliums require a deciduous tree cover, rich well-drained soil and even moisture. On the other hand, purple cone flower likes full sun, does well in average soil and will tolerate some dry spells.
If you use care in your plant selection and garden planning, your garden can help restore natural habitats that would otherwise be lost.
Here are some native perennials that will do well in most sunny yards.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea spp.). The species of purple coneflower (E. purpurea) has been widely selected by plant breeders has many stunning new varieties.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.). Long a stalwart of the mid-summer perennial garden, Rudbeckia has many interesting species in addition to the widely grown R. fulgida. Try R. laciniata, the cut-leaf coneflower for the back of the border.
Obedient Plant (Physotegia virginiana). Obedient plant provides great late summer color in the border. In addition to the usual hot pink, selections are now available in white. As with most native bloomers, the pollinators love obedient plant.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.) Not really a weed, but a native aristocrat. The fuzzy purple blooms attract butterflies and bees in midsummer. More species and cultivars are becoming available as more gardeners appreciate Joe Pye Weed.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana). This is a spring bloomer that will die back in the heat of summer and sometimes will give you another bloom in the fall.
Blazing Star (Liatris spicata). This is a great early summer bloomer with an exotic look. If you let the stalks stand after blooming, you may catch goldfinches hanging on to savor the seeds.