Native Plants – Truths and Myths

Tom Knezick, Pinelands Nursery & Supply, is an expert on native plants and a Board Member, NJNLA

You may have heard a lot about native plants and their benefits to pollinators and the environment.  We’re here to help decipher what is true and what is not. 

A female ruby throated hummingbird feeding from cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis)

The Facts about Native Plants

Native Plants are better for pollinators: Truth!  Many studies show that native plants are much better for pollinators than non-native plants.  Native pollinators, like bumblebees and butterflies, are accustomed to our native flowers and prefer them to those that are not native.  Insects, like the Monarch butterfly, have developed relationships with particular plants, specifically milkweed, where they lay their eggs.  Milkweed is the only plant the caterpillars can eat when they hatch. Keep in mind, when we say pollinators, we mean native pollinators not honeybees, which are from Europe. Although, they will appreciate them, too. 

Native Plants are maintenance free:  Myth! It’s always nice to not have to worry too much about our gardens.  While native plants grown in the proper conditions may be less fussy than some of their traditional garden counterparts, they are far from maintenance free.  While cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, may thrive when planted in your rain garden, you’ll be out there frequently watering it with the hose if it’s planted in a dry spot in your garden.  In order to keep the maintenance to a minimum, look up the conditions in which particular species like to grow, and try to match those conditions with where you plant them in your yard.  Don’t fall for broad tag lines such as “drought resistant”.  That’s only true if your plant is in the right spot. 

All native plants are equal: Myth!  The term “native plant” is a broad one.  While a plant may be native to the United States, it may not be native in your neck of the woods.  While Sujaro cactus is native to North America, you don’t see any growing naturally in New Jersey.  When looking around your area, you can find thousands of plants that are native; however, just because a plant is native, doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for your garden.  When looking for native pollinators, try to use the straight species or a variety that resembles the straight species.  Studies have shown that varieties of wildflowers that most resemble the original tend to outperform flowers of the same species that are of a different shape or color.  Avoid flowers with double blooms; these species typically do not produce nectar or pollen and are useless to pollinators. 

All wildflowers are native plants: Myth!  We often see wildflower seed mixes offered for sale in box stores.  Not only are the contents typically not native, sometimes they contain invasive plant varieties. Additionally, most of the seeds in these mixes tend to be annual species meaning you’ll have to put down more seed each year.  If you’re interested in wildflower seed mixes, check the contents to make sure everything is native before buying. 

Baptisia australis, commonly called blue false indigo, blue wild indigo, indigo weed, rattle weed, rattle bush or horsefly weed, is an upright perennial and features purple, lupine-like flower in erect races atop flower spikes.

Native plants bring out a new dimension of gardening: Truth!  Gardening with native plants is about so much more than simply enjoying beautiful flowers.  You’ll also get to see the abundance of life these miniature ecosystems bring.  You’ll see countless butterflies floating, bumblebees buzzing, and moths fluttering their wings while sipping on nectar in addition to the praying mantises, ladybugs, and dragonflies that come along to find their next meal.  You’ll also admire the birds that feed on the seed that these flowers produce.  A native garden provides the opportunity to give a backyard ecology lesson to your kids or grandkids about the importance of ecosystems, giving birth to a whole new legion of native gardeners.