It’s almost that time of year to think about what to plant in your garden. While there are plenty of options at your local big-box store garden center, think about choosing native flowers and plants this year. Planting native can add something special — and it goes a long way to helping the environment.
Annie Rzepka, director of Arboretum Horticulture at Holden Forests and Gardens in Kirtland, says native plants help preserve Ohio’s biological heritage and reduce the chance for the introduction of invasive exotic plant species to the landscape.
“Native plants are well adapted to our ecoregion and usually need minimal care in the home landscape because they are well acclimated to our climate and soil,” she says. “As long as you put them in conditions similar to the ones they habitat in the wild, they will thrive. Native plants provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies and pollinators. Many plant, animal and insect species have co-evolved and have formed close symbiotic relationships. Plants have adapted strategies to promote pollination (color, fragrance, flower form, nectar guides, pollen packaging) and insects and birds have developed strategies to maximize these floral resources.”
According to Holden Forests and Gardens, within Ohio there are approximately 2,700 native and non-native plants growing wild. About 1,800 of these are native, existing here since before European settlement.
How do you know if plants are native or not? Rzepka says there are endless options.
“They are becoming more readily available now,” she says. “The horticulture team at Holden has compiled a list of local (or relatively local) native plant nurseries which is available.”
Growing Native Plants
As with so many other plants, you want to carefully consider where to place them and which ones will fit your style of care the best.
Depending on your landscape and family unit, Rzepka provides some tips on planting native.
The beauty of planting natives is that they thrive in a variety of conditions,” she says. “If you want a plant for a dry, sandy site, Ohio has habitats that support those plants (think alvars at Marblehead or the Headlands Dunes) so there will be a native plant perfect for those conditions — prickly pear cactus is one of them, but common milkweed loves these conditions, too. Dry shade? We have a wild stonecrop perfect for that type of garden space. If you are lucky enough to have fertile, humus-rich soil in partial shade, your wildflower options are almost endless — wild geraniums, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, hepatica, Solomon’s seal. If your garden is wet, you could plant wild ginger, cardinal flower, swamp rose mallow or swamp milkweed.”
Native plants aren’t just there to be admired; they can also provide a tool for understanding how they grow.
“Native plants are really cool and every plant has a story to tell,” Rzepka says. “For example — did you know that Jack-in-the-pulpits can change sex based on conditions? The corm is bisexual. Sex is determined by how much food is accumulated by fall in the corm. If food is ample, a female flower with two leaves arises in the spring. If less ample, a male flower with one leaf results. If the corm is starved, only one leaf emerges. You can actually look inside the spathe to see if you have a boy or a girl. These types of stories are endless in our world of plants — there is always something new and interesting to discover.”
You also have to be aware of the local wildlife such as deer, insects and small animals. They can wreak havoc on your garden; however, they also play important roles.
“Regardless of size or beauty, all native plant species play an important role in their intended ecosystem,” Rzepka says. “People often ask if there are native plants the deer won’t eat, and the answer is yes (kind of). There are certain species that deer don’t prefer and certain species that they do prefer — like anything in the lily family. Deer, unfortunately, have the potential to devour both native and nonnative plants, if resources are scarce. Many native plants, like milkweed, are host plants. If your goal is to have a perfect milkweed specimen, then you will be disappointed because they will be full of holes when the monarch caterpillars find them. So, depending on the goal of your garden, you will either love the role that native plants play in attracting wildlife and relish in the diversity, or you will be saddened when your perfect specimens become someone’s lunch.”
Rzepka notes that with native plants, have patience and appreciation.
“Some of our native wildflowers are quite difficult to grow from seed while others propagate themselves easily,” she adds. “Species, such as trilliums, take several years and multiple cycles of warm and cold to germinate and another several years to get to a point where they have enough energy to flower.”
Rzepka says while it’s quite an investment of time for the grower, it’s certainly worth the wait.
“To see plants like this growing out in nature, it is truly a wonder that they are able to persist and make their preservation even more imperative,” she says.