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What is a Native, Anyway?

Native plants (wildflowers, trees, shrubs, vines) have been growing in New England for thousands of years and have acclimated to the climate here. They have adapted to grow in a particular habitat such as a wetland, forest, or meadow as well as to the amount of light and soil conditions. Over thousands or millions of years, the different native plants have co-existed with each other, allowing for an amazing array of genetic diversity.  Most importantly, native plants have co-evolved with the animal kingdom to develop strategies for pollination and seed dispersal. With accelerated changes driven by Climate Change, this diversity will give the natural community a tremendous advantage in conforming to new challenges; thus supporting wildlife and humans. 

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What changed?

Introduction of plants from other continents started with the arrival of European settlers.  Early gardeners and botanists brought back plant specimens from Europe and Asia.  Some plants were introduced unintentionally through shipment of commercial crops or in ship ballast water. With no natural enemies to keep them under control, many became invasive.  Similarly, our native bees and butterflies did not evolve with these introduced plants, and their caterpillars are not able to use these plants for their survival.

Why Native?

An estimated 80% of plants sold in our local nurseries are ornamental and non-native. This means the average yard does a poor job of supporting native wildlife and pollinators. Native plants that have been grown from seed are best for our gardens as these plants have more genetic diversity than those propagated by division or otherwise. They need less water, are hardy and provide the important biological services for flower visitors – the native butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles and hummingbirds. You may be concerned about bees in your yard, but in most cases our native bees are solitary and not aggressive. Foraging bees are also laser focused on gathering nectar or pollen so you can safely watch and admire them up close. Native plants are beautiful, hardy and low maintenance; most do not need supplementary watering or pruning.  Sowing native plants in your yard will provide many hours of up close encounters with native wildlife. Be sure to consider plants for your yard that bloom from spring until fall so the pollinators will always have a source of nectar or pollen and in late summer many of your plants may provide seeds or fruits just in time for migrating birds. 

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Is this a native?

So, you’re ready to plant some natives in your garden. You stop by your local nursery to buy purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. You heard it is a beautiful plant with pink petals that will be visited by native bees and butterflies for the pollen they seek in its flower.  At the nursery, you find many different coneflowers in a variety of colors.  There may be cultivars such as Echinacea purpurea ‘Sensation pink’ which has been bred to have neon-pink flowers or Echinacea purpurea ‘Santa Fe’ which  produces coral red flowers. Some of the coneflower plants have double-flowers, which are especially showy. 

 

The horticultural industry assisted our desires for more variety by taking native plants, cultivating them for a desired characteristic such as flower color, foliage color, or “pest” resistance.  Changes in a plant’s flower color may confuse pollinating insects, the changed flower may no longer provide nectar, and in some cases the plant is sterile and does not provide seeds needed by birds in winter. 

 

The best choice to help our native pollinators is to pick the true native. If the Latin name of a plant is followed by a name in single quotation marks, it’s a cultivar, such as Echinacea purpurea ‘Santa Fe’. When you visit your favorite nursery, ask for native plants and check the plant label to ensure you are buying native.  The butterflies and bees thank you!  Please check our Resource list for places we recommend to buy native plants.

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Resources:

Discover Plants Native to Massachusetts:

 

Great Books:

  • Native Plants for New England Gardens by Mark Richardson & Dan Jaffe

  • Wildflowers of New England by Ted Eliman and the New England Wildflower Society

  • Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies by Xerces Society

  • Bringing Nature Home - How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy

  • Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards by Sara Stein

  • Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm

  • A Guide to Invasive Plants in Massachusetts, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife - Go to  https://www.mass.gov/guides/masswildlife-publications  

  • Wild Seed Project print publications - Go to https://shop.wildseedproject.net/collections/publications

 

Where to Buy Native Plants/Seeds:    

Discover more:

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