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Native Plant Overview

Planting native plants is a fantastic way to support the local ecosystem. These plants have evolved alongside other species in our area, providing vital food and shelter for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Native plants also tend to be low-maintenance, requiring less water and fertilizer than non-native options. This means they’re easier on your wallet and better for the environment!

Plants and their places can get intricately linked over time. Here’s a breakdown of ecotypes, native plants, and introduced plants:

  • Plant Ecotypes: Imagine a species of sunflower growing across a vast state. In the hot, dry south, you might find sunflowers with smaller leaves to conserve water. Up north, where it’s cooler and wetter, the sunflowers might have larger leaves to capture more sunlight. These subtle variations within a species, adapted to specific local conditions, are called ecotypes. They’re essentially sub-groups of a species that have evolved unique traits to thrive in their particular environment.
  • Native Plants: These are the original plant inhabitants of a region. They’ve been there for a long time, coevolving with other native species like insects, birds, and animals. Native plants are perfectly adapted to the local climate, soil, and rainfall patterns. They provide essential food and habitat for wildlife that depend on them for survival.
  • Introduced Plants (Non-Native Plants): These are plants brought in from other regions, either intentionally (for gardens or agriculture) or unintentionally (through human activities or by nature itself). Introduced plants may or may not be a problem. Some, like tomatoes or ornamental flowers, can coexist peacefully. However, some introduced plants become invasive. They can outcompete native plants for resources, disrupt ecosystems, and even harm native wildlife.

Here’s a list of websites that champion native plants, species diversity, conservation, and environmental stewardship:

  • Government Agencies:
  • Non-Profit Organizations:
    • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (https://www.wildflower.org/): Renowned for their focus on native plants of North America, offering information and resources for gardeners.
    • Xerces Society (https://xerces.org/): Champions invertebrate conservation, including butterflies, bees, and other pollinators that rely heavily on native plants.
    • Pollinator Partnership (https://www.pollinator.org/): A nonprofit promoting the health of pollinators through education and resources, including ecoregional planting guides for native species.

Websites Supporting Native Plants and Native Plant Gardening:

Invasive plants are a major threat to the northeastern United States’ delicate ecosystems. These aggressive non-native species outcompete native plants for sunlight, water, and nutrients, disrupting the natural balance and harming wildlife that depend on native plants for food and shelter. Here are some of the most common invasive plants in the northeastern US:

  • Japanese Knotweed: This fast-growing perennial has bamboo-like stalks and reddish-brown leaves. It spreads aggressively through underground rhizomes, forming dense thickets that crowd out native vegetation. Knotweed can even grow through cracks in pavement, making it a nuisance in urban areas.
  • Multiflora Rose: Introduced as a hedging plant, this thorny shrub has become a major invasive in the Northeast. It forms dense thickets that choke out native trees and shrubs, reducing biodiversity. Multiflora rose also produces abundant fruits that are attractive to birds, which then spread the seeds to new areas.
  • Autumn Olive: Autumn Olive is a shrub valued for its ornamental silver foliage and red berries. However, it spreads aggressively by seed and can quickly take over forests and meadows. The dense thickets of Autumn Olive shade out native wildflowers and understory trees.
  • Garlic Mustard: This biennial herb has white flowers that appear in early spring. It forms dense monocultures that crowd out native wildflowers and disrupt the delicate balance of spring ephemerals. Garlic mustard also releases chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants.
  • Oriental Bittersweet: This woody vine climbs on trees and shrubs, smothering them and preventing them from getting sunlight. Oriental bittersweet produces orange berries that are attractive to birds, which spread the seeds to new areas.

Here are some resources to learn more about invasive plants and how to combat them:

If you spot invasive plants on your property, it’s important to take steps to remove them. The best way to control invasive plants depends on the species and the extent of the infestation. Some common control methods include manual removal, herbicide application, and prescribed burning.

Noxious weeds are a specific subset of invasive plants that are federally designated as particularly troublesome due to their negative economic and environmental impacts.

Here are some additional resources you can explore for more information on Noxious Weeds:

By staying informed about these regulations and opting for native plant alternatives, gardeners and landscapers can help protect Pennsylvania’s ecosystems.

American lawns and many conventional gardens can be considered ecological wastelands for wildlife due to several factors:

Lack of Food and Habitat:

  • Monoculture Lawns: Expansive, uniform lawns dominated by a single grass species offer little variety in food sources. They lack the flowers, fruits, and seeds that many insects, birds, and small mammals rely on.
  • Non-Native Plants: Many ornamental garden plants, while beautiful, are not native to the area. They may not provide the types of food or nesting sites that local wildlife have evolved to depend on.

Reduced Shelter and Nesting Sites:

  • Mowed Lawns: Short, manicured lawns offer little to no cover for ground-dwelling creatures like insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Birds have difficulty finding hiding places or suitable nesting sites in these open spaces.
  • Overly Tidy Gardens: Gardens with a focus on pruned shrubs and a lack of diverse plant structures leave little room for wildlife to hide or build nests.

Chemical Reliance:

  • Herbicides and Pesticides: The heavy use of herbicides to eliminate “weeds” can inadvertently kill beneficial insects like pollinators. Pesticides aimed at controlling garden pests can also harm wildlife that prey on those insects.

Water Waste:

  • Traditional Lawns: Maintaining a lush green lawn often requires significant irrigation, especially during dry periods. This can be a strain on local water resources, impacting the health of nearby ecosystems.

These factors all contribute to a lack of biodiversity in American lawns and gardens. While they may be aesthetically pleasing to some humans, they offer little to the complex web of life that thrives in a healthy ecosystem.

Here are some ways to transform your lawn or garden into a haven for wildlife:

  • Plant Native Species: Opt for native flowering plants, shrubs, and trees that provide food and shelter for local wildlife.
  • Embrace Diversity: Create a garden with a variety of plant structures – tall grasses, flowering perennials, low-growing groundcovers – to offer a range of habitats.
  • Reduce Mowing Frequency: Allow some areas of your lawn to grow taller, providing hiding spots for small animals and allowing wildflowers to bloom.
  • Let Nature Take its Course: Minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides, allowing natural predators to control pest populations.
  • Consider a Pollinator Garden: Dedicate a space to native flowering plants that attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

By making small changes to your landscaping practices, you can create a beautiful garden that benefits both you and the local wildlife.