Native Plant Basics

What is a native plant?  Native plants are plants that grew naturally in a region prior to possible introduction by settlers during territorial expansion.  They were not brought here from other countries or regions either intentionally or accidentally.  Depending on the scope of the discussion native plants can have a wide definition, including the entire United States or a narrower one including only those native to a particular region.  For our purposes, we will concentrate mostly on those native to the northern Pacific Coast from sea level to the Cascade Mountain Range (northern Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southern Alaska).

Why landscape with native plants?  Native plants are better adapted to soils and climate.  They usually require less irrigation and less maintenance.  With some exceptions, native plants have fewer disease problems.  Native plants attract native wildlife.  Insects and other invertebrate pests become less of a control problem if there are enough birds, bats and snakes in your habitat to keep them under control.  Native groundcovers can discourage the spread of invasive weeds.  A natural landscape can also be left alone to regenerate itself through natural systems of pollination, seed dispersal and germination. Native Plants visually “fit” better in local landscapes than exotics; and can be used to create enchanting, woodland landscapes.  Many are very attractive.  Some native plants, such as the Red-Flowering Currant, have been reintroduced after cultivated varieties were developed in Europe.

If your goal is to improve the ecology of your landscape, then a large percentage, at least 80% or more, of it should be natives.  It only makes sense to provide the food, cover and nesting plants with which local animals have co-evolved.  Although some exotic plants may be highly attractive to animals, they are the “candy” that can be useful to entice them to check out your habitat.  Whereas, the native plants are the “staples” that will keep the animals coming back or staying, including your habitat as part of their territory!  You do not need to be a purist and can enjoy a few of your favorite exotics as long as they are not invasive or will otherwise ultimately cause problems.  I usually like to plant my summer annuals in containers so they remain separate and easier to maintain.

Purchasing Native Plants:  Many retail nurseries now sell some native plants, but they are often limited in the quantity and species available.  It is best to find a nursery that specializes in growing and selling native plants.  Because some native plants do not transplant well, you will have better success with smaller plants that have been grown in containers.  A list of native plant nurseries is included in the appendices.  Many nurseries have websites where they post what they grow and what is currently available, but it is best to call first to verify availability.  A reputable nursery will only sell container-grown materials or will let you know if the plants were wild-collected legally with a permit.  Many county conservation districts hold annual native plant sales, where larger quantities of small bareroot plants can be obtained relatively inexpensively.

Collecting Plants in the Wild: Before collecting plants in the wild it is important to get permission from the owners of the property.  Plant collecting in National Parks is strictly prohibited (permits are issued only for educational or research purposes).  In National Forests, you need to check with the local ranger to find out what can be collected and whether you need a permit.  State parks generally have strict guidelines that, for the most part, only allow plant removal for maintenance purposes.  Whenever collecting in the wild, it is important to be conscientious and only collect where large populations exist and collect only what you can use.  The collecting of seeds or cuttings for propagation is preferred over digging the entire plant.  Some plants, such as most of our native orchids, are better left alone.  Because of complex symbiotic or semi-parasitic relationships, these plants will not survive transplantation.  The best places to collect native plants are sites that are soon to be cleared for development.  There are native plant salvage organizations that use volunteers to go in and rescue plants from these sites.  It is a good way to claim some plants for your own landscape!

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