The Multiple Benefits of Native Plants
Borrowed from Watersheds:A Practical Handbook for Healthy
Water, by Dobson and Beck and EPA Handout "Landscaping with Native
What is a Native Plant?
Why Should I Use Native Plants?
What is a Non-native Plant?
Prior to the arrival of the first European settlers, the
Midwestern landscape was made up of a variety of ecosystems, including
tallgrass prairies, oak savannas, woodlands, and wetlands.
European settlement, people planted gardens with plants brought
from their home country. They were tiny, comfortable garden plots
set in a huge wilderness. Today, however, the reverse is true.
Agricultural and garden plants introduced from all over the world
dominate the landscape, while native plants are managed in small
preserves. In recent years, natural landscaping - using native
plants and plant communities in landscaping - has become more
ecosystems were home to abundant birds, butterflies and other
animals. Most of these areas have been transformed into the agricultural
lands, urban centers, and industrial sites we see today.
of the original landscapes remain. For example, approximately
65% of Illinois was originally tallgrass prairie. Today, less
than 0.01 % of the original prairie survives in small, scattered
preserves. Other natural ecosystems have fared similarly.
What is a Native
Plant?Native plants (also called indigenous plants) are plants
that have evolved over thousands of years in a particular region.
They have adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of
that region. Native plants occur in communities, that is, they
have evolved together with other plants. As a result, a community
of native plants provides habitat for a variety of native wildlife
species such as songbirds and butterflies.
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Why Should I Use Native Plants?
It seems far too simple to be meaningful, but planting native
trees, shrubs, and other vegetation is one of the most effective
ways to restore natural habitats and to improve water quality.
Since plants are the foundation of food chains, restoring natural
wildflowers, shrubs, and forest cover is a critical part of any
effort to restore habitats. The benefits are many.
1. Native plants provide a beautiful, hardy,
drought resistant, low maintenance landscape while
benefiting the environment.
2. Native plants, once established, save
time and money by eliminating or significantly reducing
the need for fertilizers, pesticides, water and lawn maintenance
3. Native plants do not require fertilizers.
Vast amounts of fertilizers are applied to lawns.
Excess phosphorus and nitrogen (the main components of fertilizers)
run off into lakes and rivers causing excess algae growth. This
depletes oxygen in our waters, harms aquatic life and interferes
with recreational uses.
Native plants require fewer pesticides than lawns.
Nationally, over 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to
lawns each year. Pesticides run off lawns and can contaminate
rivers and lakes. People and pets in contact with chemically treated
lawns can be exposed to pesticides.
5. Native plants require less water than lawns.
The modern lawn requires significant amounts of water to thrive.
In urban areas, lawn irrigation uses as much as 30% of the water
consumption on the East Coast and up to 60% on the West Coast.
The deep root systems of many native Midwestern plants increase
the soil's capacity to store water. Native plants can significantly
reduce water runoff and, consequently, flooding.
6. Native plant systems hold water and
Forests, wetlands, and prairie systems act like sponges, soaking
up vast amounts of water and slowly releasing it into streams and groundwater
reserves. Plant roots hold soils in place and when vegetation
dies the nutrients replenish the soil.
7. Native plants help reduce air pollution,
consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen
Natural landscapes do not require mowing. Lawns, however, must
be mowed regularly. Gas powered garden tools emit 5% of the nation's
air pollution. Forty million lawnmowers consume 200 million gallons
of gasoline per year. One gas-powered lawnmower emits 11 times
the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation. Excessive
carbon from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global
warming. Native plants sequester, or remove, carbon from the air.
8. Native plants provide shelter and food
for wildlife. They provide shade and relief from the
Native plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies, and other
wildlife by providing diverse habitats and
food sources. Closely mowed lawns are of little use to most wildlife.
Native habitats are also good
for people; native trees and other plants provide shade and reduce
water loss from soil.
9. Native plants promote biodiversity and
stewardship of our natural heritage.
In the U.S., approximately 20 million acres of lawn are cultivated,
covering more land than any single crop. Native plants are a part
of our natural heritage. Natural landscaping is an opportunity
to reestablish diverse native plants, thereby inviting the birds
and butterflies back home.
For a PDF list of suggested plants to use
in our watersheds....click
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What is a Non-native Plant? Non-native plants (also called non-indigenous plants, invasive
plants, exotic species, or weeds) are plants that have been introduced
into an environment in which they did not evolve. Introduction
of non-native plants into our landscape has been both accidental
and deliberate. Purple loosestrife, for example, was introduced
from Europe in the 1800's in ship ballast and as a medicinal herb
and ornamental plant. It quickly spread and can now be found in
In general, aggressive, non-native plants have no enemies
or controls to limit their spread. As they move in, complex native
plant communities, with hundreds of different plant species supporting
wildlife, will be converted to a monoculture. This means the community
of plants and animals is simplified, with most plant species disappearing,
leaving only the non-native plant population intact.
careful what you plant!
For example, purple loosestrife colonizes wetland areas (it can
produce thousands of seeds per plant!), replacing native species
unable to compete for available sunlight, water, and nutrients.
Wetlands infested with purple loosestrife lose as much as 50%
of their original native plant populations. This limits the variety
of food and cover available to birds and may cause the birds to
move or disappear from a region altogether. There are many species
like purple loosestrife (reed canary grass, European buckthorn,
tartarian honeysuckle, garlic mustard, among others in the Indian
Creek Watershed) that cause our native populations to get overrun
and out of balance.
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For a list of invasive plants ....click here
Contact your county cooperative extension office or local land restoration contractors for help with controlling invasive species infestations.