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Searching for the right plant for the right place? Try a native species

Hardy native hibiscus provides pollen and nectar to insects and hummingbirds.
Hardy native hibiscus provides pollen and nectar to insects and hummingbirds. Submitted

There is no doubt that when choosing plants for a landscape, the mantra is “right plant right place.” This is especially true if you’re seeking plants that are sustainable, affordable, and offer beautiful design.

The next time you’re searching for the perfect plant for a particular spot in your landscape, consider a native species. Native plants have evolved to fit certain niches in nature and are not only tolerant of climate and soils of the area, but they co-evolved with local wildlife species and support native vertebrates and invertebrates.

North American native plants are loosely defined as those species which predate European settlement. Exotic plants are a species that have been introduced since the early 1400s from other continents. While most non-native plant species are well-behaved and stay where they were planted, some foreign species spread and can degrade native populations.

Further research has shown that even if an exotic species does not spread, the numbers of species of wildlife supported by these plants may be few to none.

While it is easy to care about song birds and butterflies, dolphins and loggerhead turtles, it is a little more challenging to make the case for insects, spiders, and weeds. Common species of oak, willow, cherry, and aster support many larval and adult insects which are the main food fed to young birds by their parents. Without the host plants, there would be no food for those baby songbirds. And without their flowers, there would be no pollen, nectar, nuts, seeds or fruit for butterflies, bees and other foragers.

There are places in most landscapes for “specimen” plants, but consider using native plants for the majority of trees, shrubs, perennials, and ground cover. A diverse landscape can provide important ecological services, such as soil cover, leaf litter, humus, erosion control, habitat, food, carbon sequestration, screening, cooling, wind break and noise reduction. Using the right native plants can also reduce irrigation, fertilization, and pesticide use because these plants have grown in native soils, and adapted to the weather and pest populations for centuries.

The number of locally available species and selections of natives is growing. As demand for sustainably produced and locally sourced materials increases, so will their availability. Observe what species are doing well in natural areas, identify and ask for the plant by its scientific name and its common name. Local garden centers and nurseries may have the plant in stock or can easily source it. Contact the local extension office, native plant society, or look for native plant sales.

Laura Lee Rose is the Consumer Horticulture Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator for the Beaufort County Clemson Extension Service. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer.

Native, naturalized and invasive species

  • Native: A species that was growing in the region before European settlement; this plant may have been introduced by forces of nature, animals or even humans but is capable of living and reproducing on its own.
  • Naturalized: Plants that are thoroughly established, yet not native, and have not caused extensive damage or spread. In South Carolina, examples include crape myrtle and camellia species.
  • Invasive: Plants that have been introduced to an area and have established a breeding population, which spreads to the extent that agriculture or native plant communities are damaged. Examples include kudzu, Chinese privet, Chinese tallow, Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose.

Native plant benefits

The environmental benefits of using and protecting native plants in landscapes are significant and include:

  • Water Conservation. Once established, if a native plant is the right plant for the right place, then little to no irrigation will be required.
  • Water Quality. Reduced pollution in stormwater runoff as often times little to no fertilizers and pesticides are needed once native plants are established.
  • Biodiversity. Increasing native pollinator and songbird habitat and wildlife value.
  • Sense of Place. Native plants are regional plants that reflect the natural landscape & heritage of an area; thus landscaping with native plants helps to identify a “place.”
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