Seasonal News

Seasonal News

The Return of Native Plants

Author, Bill Brenton, active Master Gardener

The Return of the Native(s)

I’m borrowing a title from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels to describe a growing horticultural trend: the use of native plant species in residential landscapes. If not a trend, then natives are at least gaining a wider acceptance. And why not? Natives can certainly satisfy our desire for beauty in our gardens, but they have a salutary ecological effect as well. Like no other plants, native species can revive and restore the widest variety of beneficial insect and bird populations. 

What is a Native Plant?

There is a simple definition: A plant that was present before the European settlement of North America. But there is an important aspect of native plants that such a simple definition omits, namely, the critical ecological role they play. In Professor Doug Tallamy’s book Nature’s Best Hope (a must read), he emphasizes the ecological role a species plays when discussing natives: “In my view, ‘native’ is not a label a species earns after a given period of time . . . Time in residence is not the variable to be measured here: it is the rate at which local organisms adapt to the plant’s presence.”

 A more comprehensive definition and one that embraces the ecological function of these plants is offered by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation: “Native species evolved within specific regions and dispersed throughout their range without known human involvement. They form the primary component of the living landscape and provide food and shelter for native animal species. Native plants co-evolved with native animals over many thousands of years and have formed complex and interdependent relationships . . . Many animals (and insects) require specific plants for their survival.”


So, one of the important criteria by which a plant is considered native is the ecological function it plays in the landscape. What does that mean? It’s simple: how many insects feed on the nectar and pollen of a plant? How many insect species lay eggs on the plant? How many moth and butterfly caterpillars will the plant host? By extension, what animal and bird species are supported by the adult insects and their larvae?

Caterpillars are a staple in the diet of baby birds. Caterpillars have been described as plentiful pillows of protein and fat. In an article by Marion Renault posted on the Audubon website, a single clutch of Carolina Chickadees can consume up to 9,000 caterpillars between hatching and fledging.  The chicks typically fledge in 16 to 19 days. Let’s do some math: 9,000 caterpillars divided by 19 days = 473 caterpillars a day. Can the adult chickadee range far and wide for caterpillars? The math suggests not. For the Carolina Chickadee, the feeding range is about 160 feet in all directions. This is an area of about 2 acres. If they are to nest in your yard, the food source must be close by. This is true for 90% of our native bird species.

Tale of Two Plants

Let us consider two plants solely based on ecological function: buddleia, the so-called Butterfly Bush and the lowly golden rod (solidago). The Butterfly bush is aptly named. When in bloom, it is smothered in butterflies; it draws them like the proverbial magnet. There is some irony, however, in the name. The Butterfly Bush supports larval development in only 1 of North America’s 725 butterfly species. Now consider the solidago. According to the National Wildlife Federation, citing research done by Dr. Tallamy, the solidago supports 115 butterfly and moth species! If you love butterflies and birds, and you wish to bolster their populations, which do plant in your garden? Oh, by the way, buddleia is a non-native invasive. Does that make it easier?


How Did It Get That Way?

Iron Weed

In the past, native plants have been the uninvited guests at the horticultural dinner table, vile interlopers that must be dealt with harshly. To put it bluntly, they are viewed as weeds. Undesirable and unwanted. They are either yanked out or doused with herbicide. Consider the names given to natives: Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), iron weed (Veronia altissima). The names we give them carry our judgment.

Natives are not prim and proper. They are, let’s say, more exuberant and resistant to decorative pruning. They mingle freely, sometimes too freely, poaching on the space of neighboring, more discreet plants. They cannot be regimented into neat rows. In the suburbs, we like tidy yards: orderly, deep green and – sterile.

Beauty Redefined

 Outside of Chapel Hill North Carolina, there is a mixed-use development called Fearrington Village. At the center of the village is an upscale inn surrounded by well-tended gardens. I admire these gardens for the clever and tasteful mixture of color and leaf texture. In the sunny part of the back garden, I noticed red and orange zinnias paired with paprika yarrow, some gladiolus with salmon pink blossoms and, what’s this? Milkweed! Yes, milkweed. It was surprising but not aesthetically jarring. As a matter of fact, it looked quite at home. A beautiful space that had made some provision for Monarch butterfly larvae. Proof that beauty

Common Milkweed

Getting Started

Zebra Swallowtail

0k, you’ve decided your yard needs to support wildlife. You want to include native plant species. But which ones? Here are some resources that can help in plant selection:

At this website you will find research by Doug Tallamy and Jarrod Fowler on the most productive host plants by ecoregion.

Using the following link, available through the NWF, you can enter your zip code and get a list of the butterfly and moth species in your area and the host plants their caterpillars use:


The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A truly awesome source of information that is nationwide in scope. Under the heading “Plants for Pollinators”:

Final Thoughts

For some, introducing native plant species into the landscape is a trend, for others it is a mission. Homegrown National Park (HNP) is an organization founded by Dr. Doug Tallamy and Michelle Al-Fandari and is committed to introducing biodiversity back into our gardens. Alarmed by the disastrous decline in insect and bird species, HNP seeks to encourage homeowners to reduce a portion of their lawns (an expensive food desert that destroys wildlife habitats) and replace it with native trees and flowering perennials. It is estimated that 40 million acres of are planted in green lawns. If half of the current acreage in lawns were converted, the “Homegrown National Park” would be bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, the Great Smoky Mountains and more. One yard at a time. The HNP website is Check it out and become part of the solution.