Q: I am planning on purchasing new perennials this year and keep reading more and more about native plants. What is a native plant and why should I use them? I already have a lot of plants and don’t want to redo my garden. —E. M., Easthampton
A: I am so glad you asked this question, E. M. First let’s address what the term “Native” means in relation to plants. Native plants are local plants where local means they have been growing in a particular habitat or geographic region for thousands of years. For example, plants growing in Massachusetts since before European colonization are considered native specifically to this state.
Native plants offer strong reasons for purchasing them. One is low maintenance. They require little maintenance because those suited to our temperature zone have evolved in areas with similar soil, weather, and growing conditions for millennia and are well-adapted to survive here. Because of this, after the first year of settling into a spot they like, getting watered regularly and getting their roots established, they require little care and minimal watering beyond what nature provides.
Another key benefit of natives is they require less fertilizer than non-natives. They are used to our soil, as good or bad as it is, and have figured out how to make it work for them.
A third benefit is the positive role of native plants in supporting the overall food web, attracting and feeding pollinators and other beneficial insects. Native pollinators are a critical reason to include native plants in your landscape as they are the quintessential example of insect and plant co-evolution. For example, our monarch butterflies evolved their resistance to milkweed’s toxic sap over thousands of years. Now the two natives are so interconnected that milkweed is the host plant for the monarch’s young — they need it for their eggs and caterpillars.
Do you have songbirds in your yard? Or would you like to entice them in? Incorporating native plants into your garden or yard is a great lure for them and provides the foundation for a healthy ecosystem. Black-capped chickadees, for example, are cheerful visitors and are the Massachusetts state bird. They enjoy perching in and singing from the native white birch trees around my yard.
To include natives in your landscape, you do not need to start over. Simply add a native plant when the opportunity arises. Some terrific ones to start are native Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia).
Helpful resources for native plants are Native Plant Trust’s (formerly known as New England Wildflower Society) Go Botany online tool at gobotany.newenglandwild.org and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s native plant database at wildflower.org/plants-main.
Give natives a go, E.M. They are worth a try. Thanks for asking a (local) master gardener.
Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at AskAMasterGardener@wmmga.org. One question will be answered per week. wmmga.org