Native Plants Defined

What is a native plant?

The most common definition of a native plant is any plant that historically grew here prior to European settlement. Douglas Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home, however, has a much more meaningful definition: “I believe that what is and is not a native plant is best defined by nature herself.” He goes on to point out that plants do not grow in isolation from other living things. They form interactions with the other residents in their habitat; in other words, they “co-evolve” and have done this for immense periods of time. A native plant will supply food and shelter to its neighbors, especially insects, which are a crucial part of the food chain. Its growth is kept in balance with its neighboring plants by an evolved system of checks and balances so that it doesn’t become invasive.

What about non-native plants?

When you bring an alien plant into the environment, that plant has not had time to form evolutionary relationships with its neighboring plants and animals. It probably contributes very little to its ecosystem and is not in balance with the rest of its neighbors. It will occupy space and use resources (light, water, and soil nutrients) that would otherwise have been available for a native plant, but it will not pass the energy it harnesses from the sun up the food chain. It may also become invasive because there is nothing to check its growth in the environment—no natural predators or competitors. In other words, the chances are that a non-native has little positive value to the natural system it’s been introduced into and that, in fact, it will disturb and degrade that ecosystem, resulting in loss of the insects, pollinators, and other organisms that all of us depend on for our welfare.

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