Why Native Plants?

Hedgehog cactus, Pediocactus simpsonii, photographed in southern Idaho.

Pediocactus simpsonii, Hedgehog cactus, photographed in southern Idaho.

I am constantly bombarded with the simple question of “Why Native Plants?”. I have heard and read from my peers in this forum and others the same thing over and over again. I also hear practitioners, and those “in the know” struggle to find a clear and concise answer to the question. I think, as a group of people trying to educate the public, we are simply too polite in the conversation.

It is in our nature as patient, knowledgeable folks, to avoid offending anyone in the room. We know and realize that everyone comes to the table with a specific set of experiences that drive what they want from their landscape (large or small). As a result, it can be a challenge to state the reasons plainly and clearly for the use of a “Native Plants Only” approach.

Epipactis gigantea, Idaho’s largest orchid.

Epipactis gigantea, Idaho’s largest orchid.

Folks typically think that a hard line is bad line, because we seem to want desperately to please everyone participating in the conversation. When the rubber hits the road, we find that the allowances are not extended to the flora and fauna of the regions we are in, but rather our personal desire to have it our way.

I do tell people that Native is the best way to go for so many reasons. I play to all the common sense ideals of monetary and water savings, environmentally friendly, and generally the right thing to do. Still I find many people, I suspect the majority, are interested in the right color scheme or the best looking lawn in the neighborhood and so on. This last statement is a fun one for me because once I explain how expensive and lifeless a bluegrass lawn truly is, most people are embarrassed with how they started the conversation.

Calochortus nuttallii, Sego Lily

Calochortus nuttallii, Sego Lily


So, why Native only? It is the only way to help steward our inclusion in a landscape, creating a sense of place. Simply, it allows our inclusion in a landscape to be functional without detriment to every other player in or from that landscape. Humans need not feel bad about having desires, just bad about perpetuating ignorance as an acceptable allowance to facilitate those desires.


Humans are selfish. I am selfish. And as a result, the consequences of my actions in my habitat are real for the habitat I am in. Dr. Seuss said it best in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”.

© 2013, Steven Paulsen. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Carole Sevilla Brown says

    Love the Lorax quote, Steven! “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. Not only are wildlife dependent on us making the best plant choices, but the plants themselves are often in danger of being extirpated in the wild. We CAN make a difference by learning to make the most healthy choices for our gardens and the environment around us.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Ultimate Guides to a Spectacular Wildlife Garden

    • MaryAnne Coyle says

      Thank you very much for a very interesting and well written article.

      Are there issues related to soil remediation if a landscape has been exposed to non-natives for a long time? I asked this because of a sense that soils have depleted of vital nutrients by certain kinds of garden and agricultural methods. Too, do you have any thoughts or information of passive biomediation of soils that have been contaminated by industrial activity?

      • Steven Paulsen says

        Yes, soils change with different invasive inclusions. Typically, it is the soil microbes that experience the largest change causing soil nutrient cycling change, ultimately effecting the plant pallet. Things like cheat grass change the C to N ratios to such a great extent that the native soil microbes can actually be extirpated ultimately perpetuating the disturbance and the habitat shift promoting more cheat grass.

        Remediation of impacted industrial soils is tricky. Heavy metals by nature will not move off the site unless vegetation is removed after it takes up the toxins/ metals. Hydrocarbons however can be broken down in the soil. Oil, and fuel spills often provide an unexpected result as they are digested by soil microbes and bacteria. The subsequent nutrient availability can often go through the roof causing a green up event with the vascular plant community. The Hydrocarbons generally get completely consumed over time.

  2. Laura Thomas says

    I always find myself ‘agreeing’ with people about their need to have non-natives and that a native only garden just isn’t necessary … when in fact I disagree. I do think a native only garden is better and something to strive for. Thank-you for saying what we as native plant gardeners so often think but for some reason don’t say.

  3. Ellen Honeycutt says

    I too am tired of people trying to convince others to use native plants for reasons like “they use less water and fertilizer”. Water is cheap and that argument doesn’t seem to win many people over. Sense of place is a good one. But these days I still find that the most powerful argument is that native plants feed the ecosystem – and the birds. So many people love birds that when you can convince them that native plants are the building block to a healthy and diverse bird population then you have real converts. So when people say “why native plants”, start with the word “birds” and go from there!
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Violets Are Blue Too

    • Vincent Vizachero says

      Ellen, I agree that the “they use less water and fertilizer” argument is often a weak one, especially in some regions of the U.S. But in other regions, water is not cheap and plentiful.

      Just as native plants vary by region, so do the reasons for using them: the most powerful argument for natives in Philadelphia may be very different from the ones that work in Las Vegas.

  4. Donna@Gardens Eye View says

    Yu just quoted my favorite Seuss book and my favorite quote from it. Powerful message and one I continue to carry forward…thank you.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Silent Spring

  5. Nina Hedrick says

    Give me your opinion on cultivars of some natives. Thank you

    • Steven Paulsen says

      “Cultivars” of Natives: it turns out there is a rather large conversation, to put it mildly, around the use of Native Plants and the impacts that might have on plant populations both from a genetic potential of the plants in-suite as well as the plants/seeds being planted. Cross breeding, “dumbing down”, making the gene pool shallower, genetic collapse, genetic narrowing are all terms used in conversations I have heard, and the volume seems to be going up, at least here in the west.
      When this conversation began within the scientific community, it came from a desire to be successful with Natives in a restoration effort. People wanted to provide some assurances that the seeds/plants being installed would in fact have a good chance of survivability. This, coupled with a competitive edge allowing them to persist with the historic uses put on the landscape, has proven to be a point of discussion.

      Our government, through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has been party to the solution of providing these assurances, using the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) model of plant selection and seed tagging to aid in finding and locating a superior product to have available on public lands for Restoration efforts. These procedures and subsequent products have aided both the public land managers and the agricultural community for decades. It should be noted, that they are also responsible for the release of some of the most prevalent non-native vegetation types in North America, specifically, Crested Wheatgrass, Russian Olive, Kudzu Vine, and Forage Kochia. The reasons these things happened the way they did, and do, is often a result of when they happened and what we knew about the habitat function at that time. All this to say the process being used in this context is driven by specific land needs from specific users. Ultimately, this is what makes it acceptable on public lands to maintain non-native restoration protocols.

      Why is all this important as background for Native Cultivars? As with many things it is complicated:

      The research that I am aware of cannot point to one single event that shows genetic pollution of in-suite Native plants offspring being tainted by an effort to reseed with cultivated varieties. I believe that research in this arena is needed, and the academic society should take it on exclusively, removed from government facilities and funding. Research has shown that genetically narrow cultivars of Natives being used in wild land restoration efforts can fail, or behave significantly different in the environments they are placed. This may or may not be bad depending on who you are and what your needs are from that landscape.

      Native Cultivars, like the ones provided to the market by “Native Roots L.L.C.” (http://bit.ly/oX55WA) are meant for specific use in commercial properties, and people’s yards, not for wild land restoration efforts. Our company, Conservation Seeding and Restoration, Inc. tries to use seed that comes from genetic sources as close as possible to its restoration efforts. Sadly, this often means hundreds of miles away. Why is this dichotomy so large and persistent? The answer is simple: MONEY. The retail market for plants and seeds in this country drives the price point to a level that simply eliminates the economic viability of the market to afford the investment risk. A restoration effort and your front yard are not measured in the same way as far as functional habitat; as a result they can incorporate plants in a different way. Bottom line native diversity is preferred – species, genetics within species, or otherwise.

      • Nina Hedrick says

        Here in East TN a local group of Master Gardeners is involved with planting an area of a state park with plants native, not only to our state, but to the park itself. We are proud of this work and are using native species only, in this Project. In other parts of the park, we use some cultivars of some native plants, say to landscape around a Recreation Bldg. In my home garden I have many natives, many cultivars of natives, and several species (mostly hostas, that are certainly not native! Thank you for your comments.



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