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.
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.
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.
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.
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.