Native plants are not just beautiful, they are essential to well-functioning
ecosystems. Choosing to plant native plant species in your area, whether it's for backyard gardening, habitat improvement or a big restoration project, is choosing to support a balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem. Native species have adapted over many generations to thrive in particular climatic, water, soil and disturbance conditions, and these adaptations are often important for overall ecosystem function. Native plants often don’t just take from the ecosystems they are a part of, they give back to those systems. They can provide food for other species, promote biodiversity, and interact with their environment in ways that support the system's overall health.
For instance, many pollinator species, birds, and other animals rely on the nectar, pollen, and seeds of native species and are adapted to those food sources. Native plants often coevolve with pollinator species or other wildlife in a relationship where both species benefit from the presence of the other species. These relationships sometimes take thousands of years to develop and they can be specific enough that removing native species from an area can result in the dramatic reduction of a partner species. Native plants often provide more or better energetic rewards to other members of an ecosystem than non-native species whether people find them useful and desirable or not. An extreme example of this is to think about how converting a native grassland, hotspots of plant and wildlife biodiversity, into a lawn of turfgrass might impact food sources for wildlife. You might go from 25 plant species providing a variety of energetic inputs to local wildlife to one or two species. On top of that we clip the grass so seeds aren't available and we fertilize to make sure no other species can compete with the turfgrass we’ve grown. It's essentially taking a big buffet for many species and turning it into a food desert. Native species are the foundation of food webs in many ecosystems. Removing them can often make an ecosystem alter in ways we can’t even predict.
Native species also protect and promote biodiversity in contrast to many of our common horticultural plant species. Beyond just relying on native plants for food, animals often rely on native species for specific shelter needs. In our highly fragmented world where human development is altering more and more land to support human needs, habitats with abundant native plant populations are just better equipped to provide basic necessities for a variety of species which results in biodiverse ecosystems. This biodiversity is not only intrinsically valuable, it makes for more resilient ecosystems that are better at stabilizing after human and nature-caused disturbances such as floods, fires, non-native plant establishment or livestock use.
Not only do native plants give more back to the environments they belong to, they generally don't require the same maintenance or care that horticultural species do. Native plants, because they are adapted to local conditions, don’t require all the changes we make to the environment that help us promote horticultural species. They don’t require fertilizers, pesticides, or other inputs and soil amendments. They also often don’t require dramatic changes to the local water regimes. Not having to use so much artificial fertilizer and pest control is good for wildlife and results in healthier humans as well.
Another benefit to having native plants around is that they have deeper root systems than many horticultural species. These deep roots impact the environment in a number of ways - they can help increase a soil's capacity to store water, provide more benefits to soil fertility, and stable carbon storage in soils. When alive, roots redistribute carbon and nutrients throughout the soil profile. When roots die they leave behind more organic matter. Roots contain significantly more lignin that shoots (top growth) so when they die they provide a more stable and longer lasting soil organic carbon (SOC). This SOC is the most important component in maintaining soil quality and water holding capacity. Deep rooting can also significantly reduce runoff during flooding, a benefit for both people and nature.
Choosing natives over horticultural species is good for more than the environment though. They are good for your wallet too. Incorporating natives into landscapes, whether it's a publicly owned wildland or private property, often results in lowered upkeep costs. A study by the EPA of larger properties estimated that over a 20 year period the cumulative cost of maintaining a prairie or wetland totals $3,000/acre versus $20,000/acre for nonnative turf grass. Even on a smaller scale, native landscaping often requires little to no pest control, more infrequent supplemental watering and fewer costly inputs such as fertilizer.
Regardless of the situation or scale of production, growing and planting more natives makes sense from both an environmental and economic standpoint. And beyond those benefits, your local native plants are a beautiful reflection of your local environmental conditions. They showcase a vast history of biotic and abiotic interactions that have shaped the natural world around you. Choosing native species in our restoration efforts and in our home landscaping is a way to deepen our connection to where we live. It’s a way for us to actively participate in stabilizing ecosystem function and resilience right in our backyards. When we choose native plant species we are also choosing to protect our own health and the health of a multitude of other organisms. Native plants can help save the world if we let them. So get out there and learn your local native flora! Mix natives into your landscaping and remember your plant choices impact more than just you.