What Is a Native Plant?

from Wildlife Promise

This guest post is by Peggy Anne Montgomery, Brand Manager for American Beauties Native Plants.

What is a native plant? That may sound like an easy question but it isn’t. There are almost as many different definitions as people you ask. Our environment is an extremely elaborate system, with endless inner connections between its parts and that makes it impossible to speak in generalizations. Definitions will always vary depending on the way people or groups of people want to interact with nature. However, most people begin to accept the idea that we are talking about plants that were here before the European colonization of North and South America.

I come from a nursery background. I worked with a larger, wholesale producer of plants in the Mid-west. We advertised our plants as hardy, Northern grown stock. That meant that we needed to be very careful of where our plant seed came from. Let’s use a White Oak tree as an example.

If you took an acorn from a White Oak tree in the south and an acorn from a White Oak in the far north, they would not be genetically identical. The White Oak that evolved in a cold Northern climate would be more cold tolerant and naturally differ in many other ways from the southern-grown species. Conversely, the southern acorn would likely produce a tree with more heat tolerance.

The basis of that story holds true for all plants. There will always be at least slight variations in plant populations from place to place. That is why conservationists and habitat restoration workers try hard to use local ecotypes. An ecotype is a subgroup of a species and the more closely you can match your plant material to a specific site, the better they will grow and support local wildlife. This effort to preserve not only native species but also the natural diversity within a species is commendable work indeed.

At American Beauties Native Plants, we take a slightly broader view in our definition of native plants–we include cultivars. A cultivar is a plant that has been selected and cultivated because of some unique quality, such as disease resistance, cold hardiness, height, flower form or color. Sometimes interesting varieties are found in nature and brought into cultivation making them cultivated varieties or cultivars. In my years as a research horticulturist I observed pollinators, birds and other wildlife interacting freely with cultivated plants.

The definitions can get quite complicated but it isn’t necessary to become a taxonomist to enjoy native plants. The idea behind the American Beauties Native Plants brand is to help people identify what plants are native in their area and to make it easy for them to incorporate the plants into their landscapes and attract wildlife. That’s why we partnered with National Wildlife Federation. We are proud to support them and work together to encourage Gardening for Wildlife. Gardening, after all, is about enjoying life–all life!

Peggy Anne Montgomery runs her own business as a horticultural consultant. She is proud to represent American Beauties Native Plants as their Brand Manager. As a long-standing member of the Garden Writers Association, she has written for numerous trade and popular publications such as Better Homes & Gardens, American Nurseryman and Organic Gardening. Peggy Anne has a background in native plant research, public relations with a large wholesale nursery, and she has owned her own business as a landscape designer in the Netherlands. In her free time she is an avid home gardener as well.