Early horticulturalists had a lot in common with Indiana Jones. Finding foreign plant species was a form of adventure for generations.
David Fairchild was one, after whom the “David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration” is named, the highest honour for botanical-explorers. Fairchild is credited with introducing us to more than 200,000 exotic plants and crops including soybeans, pistachios and mangos early in the last century.
Indeed, we can thank plant explorers from the last 400 or so years for broadening available plant sources. Now there is a trend in the opposite direction.
Increasingly, gardeners are looking for native plant varieties — generally defined as “species which existed in North America prior to European contact”. Discovering native plant varieties opens our garden design to new possibilities.
There are plenty of reasons why you should consider native species for your garden.
1. They are generally well adapted to local insect populations. They provide sustenance to pollinators and are resistant to pests. Many generations of resistance help a native plant remain healthy without help from us.
2. Non-pollinator wildlife often depends on native plants for food and habitat. Our native milkweed is a good example of this, as it provides habitat and food for Monarch butterfly larvae.
3. Native plant species do not threaten surrounding natural areas. Those plants that are classified as “invasive” are almost always imports.
4.They are incredibly low-maintenance. Given their adaptation to the local environment, native plants usually require no additional water or fertilizer supplements after they have been established. That is, providing you have planted in the appropriate place according to the plants’ requirements.
There is some debate among native plant enthusiasts about what constitutes a “native,” which is sometimes broken into three categories.
a. Pure “native” typically refers to a species genetically consistent with what would be found in the wild.
b. “Nativars” are selections made by plant breeders from the natural variation found in the species. Our hybridizing of native plants is how we end up with “purple coneflowers” (Echinacea purpurea) in colours other than purple.
c. “Local genotype native” is grown from seedstock that is local to where you are buying it. The idea is that the local-genotype plant will be even better adapted to the exact conditions of its locale.
Lorraine Johnson, a friend of ours and expert of native plants, released the third edition of “100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants” recently. It is a great guide for selecting the right plant for your garden and explains the beneficial ways each plant interacts with its environment. Lorraine explains, “One of the greatest satisfactions of growing native plants is that you are supporting a complex web of ecological relationships that are the basis of a healthy, resilient ecosystem.”
Here are two of our favourites:
Lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) loves sunlight, is drought tolerant, and puts on a long show of jolly yellow flowers in summer time. Butterflies and bees also depend on this reliable bloomer.
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) makes an excellent ground cover in place of grass along the borders of your yard. A woodland plant, creeping phlox prefers rich humus and partial to full shade. In the spring, enjoy the clusters of blue flowers.
That is only two of our favourite plants which perform like only natives can, but there are many more worthy of your attention including woodland plants like jack-in-the-pulpit and trilliums. Keep an eye out for natives at plant sales and garden centers this spring, always make sure that they are nursery grown, not dug up from the wild — and enjoy a greener, healthier and more natural environment.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.