What is a Native Plant?


It’s amazing how complex and convoluted the debate over a seemingly intuitive notion, like Native Plant status, has become. The problem is that all plant species are native to someplace. So when we say a plant is Native without denoting an associated geographic area, we haven’t really said anything at all. But we talk about Native Plants all the time without any mention of a geographic range, and we apparently understand each other. It seems in casual discourse the vague geographic range of “around here” is assumed. Unfortunately what works in casual discussion may not work for a plant labelled “Native” at our favorite big box store.

Is there a widely accepted definition?

It seems there as many definitions as there are experts. Damon Waitt who wrote the “Ask Mr. Smarty Plants” blog of the Lady Bird Johnson WildFlower Center compiled the following list of definitions and their sources.

Native Plant Definitions

  1. One that exists in a given region through non-human introduction, directly or indirectly (Andrea De-Long Amaya, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)
  2. A plant occurring naturally in an area and not introduced by man; indigenous (GardenWeb)
  3. With respect to a particular ecosystem, a species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred, or currently occurs in that ecosystem (US Fish and Wildlife Service)
  4. A Native plant is one that occurred naturally has existed for many years in an area. These plants can be trees, flowers, grasses or any other plant. (Wikipedia)
  5. All indigenous, terrestrial, and aquatic plant species that evolved naturally in an ecosystem (US Forest Service)
  6. A plant that lives or grows naturally in a particular region without direct or indirect human intervention (USDA and US National Arboretum)
  7. Any plant that occurs and grows naturally in a specific region or locality (The Garden Helper)
  8. Native plants are those that evolved naturally in North America. More specifically, native plants in a particular area are those that were growing naturally in the area before humans introduced plants from distant places. In eastern and central North America, native plants typically grew in communities with species adapted to similar soil, moisture, and weather conditions. Some of the widespread communities included oak-hickory-chestnut and beech-maple forests, tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, and freshwater marshes. Additional communities occupied specialized niches, including savannahs, fens, bogs, flood plains and alpine areas. (Wild Ones)
  9. A native plant species is one “that occurs naturally in a particular region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions” (Federal Native Plant Conservation Committee, 1994)
  10. A native plant, within a specified geographical region of interest, is a plant species (or other plant taxon) currently or historically present there without direct or indirect human intervention. (Larry Morse, L.E.M. Natural Diversity)
  11. Any plant which is a member of a species which was present at a given site prior to European contact (California Native Plant Society)

With the exception of definitions 8 and 11, they all make pretty much the same point. But definitions like 8 and 11 are in common use and have some glaring problems. The by-products of these problems crop up over and over again in the discussion of Native Plants.

It is a direct conclusion of definition 8 that no area, other than North America, can have Native Plants. In addition, the geographic area of North America is so vast that the designation of a plant species as a North American Native provides very little information to the gardener. It is unlikely that a collection of Native Plants taken from a plot in the Yucatan would have any resemblance to a collection taken from Pt. Barrow Alaska.

The problem with definition 11 is that it’s not quite clear whether Europe could have Native plants or not. (And why do they assume only Europeans carry plants around??!!)

We, at Plant It Wild are gardeners not debaters. We take a not too rigorous, common sense approach. When we say a plant is Native we mean that it’s a Michigan Native and probably indigenous to our area of northern lower Michigan.

How can I find if a plant is Native?

If you want to find out if a plant species is a Michigan Native, obtain a copy of the Michigan Quality Floristic Assessment http://michiganflora.net. Part of the information for all species in the document is a native / non-native designation. There is a whole range of additional information about the species in the document and it is highly recommended.

Unfortunately, identifying a plant as a Michigan Native is much like a smaller version of the North American Native issue. Native plants that do well in Benton Harbor may not do well in Copper Harbor. Your best bet to find out if a Michigan Native plant will do well in your area is to get to know your supplier. We recommend buying plant materials from a local provider. Hopefully the local retailer is also the grower. They will have a great deal of knowledge on the use of the plant in your area.

What about cultivars?

Cultivars are varieties of plants that are the product of selective breeding programs to produce specific desirable characteristics (most often flower color). Aside from the specific desirable characteristics bred into the cultivar, will it behave exactly the same as the species from which it derived? Nobody knows. We prefer to stick with the Native species.