If your new to gardening, you may not even know what a native plant, a non-native plant or an invasive plant means!
And, to be honest, I didn’t know either when I was new to gardening.
While I’m not an expert on the topic, I believe that it’s important. That’s why I’ve educated myself to understand the differences. And, I hope to break this down for you in a simple way and also provide you some resources to continue your research and understanding of native vs. invasive plants.
First lets just understand the difference between native, non-native and invasive plants on a very basic level.
Native plants are plants that belong in the particular region that you live in. That means they grow there naturally, provide habitat and food for wildlife and don’t cause any harmful effects on the environment.
Non-native plants are plants that are “brought in” to your region in some way; by a person, by accident, etc. If it weren’t for this action (whether it was deliberate or not), they would never be growing in your area.
Invasive plants are always non-native plants. Sometimes, when non-native plants are introduced to a new habitat, they can “take over”, causing a lot of problems for your local ecosystem. This includes negative affects on wildlife, insects, forests, trees, plants… and much more. In short: they are bad news.
Now that you understand the basic differences, lets learn a little bit more about native and non-native invasive species.
Native Plant Definition
A native plant is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention. Native plants include all kinds of plants from mosses and ferns to wildflowers, shrubs and trees.
Native plants have adapted over long periods of time with the regions soil and climate and in tandem with other native species like plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. Native plants exist as part of naturally-forming communities and have an important ecological role to play.
The significant difference between native and non-native plants is that native plants support native insects. Insects that have evolved with native plants can combat chemical defenses of some plants and know to avoid the ones they cannot. But when non-natives are introduced, insects often cannot use them for food.
There are also many insects – at least in the larva stage – that can only feed on one specific plant or a small number of plants. The monarch butterfly is the perfect example. In its larva form as caterpillar it ONLY consumes milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
By adding some native plants to your garden, you are supporting native wildlife at all stages of life. So, if you want to attract bees, butterflies or birds to your garden, the answer is to plant some natives. Once you do that, you’ll see your garden almost immediately transform into a vibrant, dynamic space! It truly is amazing.
Benefits of native plants
Native plants are adapted to the growing conditions where you live. Because of this, they are often easier to grow, require less maintenance and are less susceptible to challenging conditions than non-native plants . There are many benefits to planting native plants in your garden:
- Natives are better suited to our climates, conditions and diseases.
- They provide erosion control due to deep and varied root systems.
- Natives provide food and shelter for wildlife, especially birds and the insects they depend upon.
- They also contribute to biodiversity, ensuring successful ecosystems for the future generations.
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Common misconceptions about native plants
Natives AND non-natives both provide shelter and food for wildlife
Non-native, non-invasive plants can ALSO provide shelter, nesting opportunities and some food options for wildlife. However, native plants generally support a greater diversity and number of wildlife. This includes the bees, butterflies and birds we love to see in our gardens.
Native plants can also be aggressive
Some native plants can also be vigorous growers that can cause many issues. But, the proper term for these plants is aggressive, not invasive. Some gardeners call these more aggressive plants the “thugs” of the garden.
Invasive Plant Definition
An invasive plant is a non-native plant that negatively impacts the region where it’s been introduced. Because invasives are non-native, they have been introduced to the new region, usually by direct or indirect human intervention. In other words, they don’t grow there naturally.
Invasive plants can reduce populations of native plants and the insects that depend on those plants… and even the animals the feed on those insects, etc. Over time, invasive species can permanently alter your local ecosystem functions.
The label “invasive” is reserved for non-native plants only. A native plant can be aggressive… but never invasive if you are using proper terminology. However, lots of people mix this up so just be aware of that!
Invasive plants have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. When invasives take over, it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to control or remove them. This is especially true if the invasive plants are established over large areas. Invasives disrupt both natural and urban ecosystems. They are problematic in other ways, too:
- They outcompete, weaken, or kill native plants that are needed to support local wildlife.
- Invasives have the potential to reduce the amount of food for animals to forage on, which can affect the production of food that we eat, too.
- They often don’t provide the habitat – food, cover, nesting sites – that native plants provide.
- They can also impact water quality and quantity; both effects of erosion and sedimentation caused by invasives
- They are expensive to control; millions of public and private dollars are spent in attempt to control the problem. Money is spend on things like labor, plant replacement costs, chemical usage, and all of the other costs involved in maintaining public parks as well as private properties (like your home).
Common misconceptions about invasive plants
There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about invasive plants so I wanted to cover the major ones.
Invasive plants aren’t “bad” plants
Invasive plants aren’t bad plants… they just aren’t suited for the environment they were introduced to. When that particular plant is in its “native” region, it may be a great plant.
Plants aren’t bad. It’s the conditions that the plant was introduced to that are causing the problem. Often times when a plant is introduced, what’s NOT introduced along with it are all of things that kept the plant in check back where it came from. These are things like insects, disease, predators and other natural controls within its native environment. So while that may be a fine plant where you live, where someone else lives it can wreak havoc. Make sense?
People who mention to you that a particular plant is invasive are not trying to hurt your feelings. They are not talking smack about a plant you like. They are simply stating a fact… and it’s a fact that’s non-negotiable. It’s not up for argument.
Some cultivars of invasive species plants are safe for your landscape
It’s true. Horticulturists are always trying to create cultivars of beautiful and desired invasive plants that are safe for the environment. Usually they do this by reducing the fertility of the plant so that it doesn’t seed and spread as profusely.
However, proceed with caution. Without years of research to back up these claims, it’s been found that some of these cultivars with “reduced” fertility will often still be invasive. Dr. Tiffany M. Knight is an expert in field of causes and consequences of exotic plant invasions. In an article from BioScience, a journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, Dr. Knight states that,
“…reductions of even 95 percent in the number of viable seed will leave a long-lived species quite capable of spreading — and many of the new cultivars do not achieve even that much of a reduction.”Dr. Tiffany M. Knight (BioScience, October, 2011)
Dr. Knight notes that only completely sterile cultivars can be considered truly safe without further testing and recommends a “conservative approach” when it comes to using these cultivars in your landscape. She adds,
“A cultivar should be considered guilty until proven innocent. And horticultural scientists should conduct more thorough breed and demographic studies on cultivars so that they are not marketed as safe before the science is complete.”Dr. Tiffany M. Knight (from Washington University in St. Louis article, ‘Non-invasive’ cultivar? Buyer beware)
Garden centers do regularly sell invasive plants… it’s true
Not all plants that you pick up at the garden center are created equal, my friend. It’s really unfortunate to know that garden centers and nurseries commonly sell invasive plants right along side of the native ones. Here are just a few common invasives you’ll see:
- Bamboo (Phyllostachys spp.)
- Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
- Wintercreeper / Creeping Euonymous (Euonymus fortunei)
- English Ivy (Hedera helix)
- Japanese Honeysuckle vine (Lonicera japonica)
- Winged Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
- Nandina/Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica)
- Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense)
- Callery/Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana)
- Common periwinkle / Vinca (Vinca minor)
- Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
- Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis ternifolia)
So, it’s up to you to learn the difference between the two. Armed with this information, you can practice your gardening hobby in a more thoughtful manner. And, you’ll also be able to contribute in a positive way to solving global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss… which is a really cool and exciting thing to be a part of.
A non-native can be invasive in one region and ok in another
Another common misconception is that if a plant is considered invasive in one region (like the state of Pennsylvania), it must be invasive everywhere else (like South Carolina, Texas, Florida, etc.).
This simply isn’t true. Conditions vary wildly from region to region. A non-native plant that’s capable of swallowing the South may be incapable of spreading very far in the North, and vice versa. There are many factors that can cause a plant to be invasive in one region and not another (like climate in this example).
I know… it can get really confusing. So, you need to always do your research!
Not all non-native plants are invasive
It’s important to understand that the majority of non-native plants are NOT invasive. Many nonnatives are beneficial to society and non-threatening to native biodiversity; others are benign. Only a few are invasive.
Head over to the article Is Non-Native and Invasive the Same Thing? to learn more about the differences between non-native and invasive plants.
What you can do to curb the spread of invasives
None of this information is helpful if I don’t provide you with some action steps to take, right? So, if you want to be a part of the solution rather than the problem, here are some things you can do:
- Learn to identify invasive plants in your area.
- Once you’ve educated yourself about invasive plants, consider reaching out to your family, friends and neighbors to share what you know. It truly takes a whole community to keep these plants at bay!
- Report invasive plant sightings to your county extension agent or local land manager (you can find yours here).
- Remove any invasive plants in your own garden (& replace with native plants, if you’d like to).
- Talk to your local nursery before selecting plants for your garden.
- Volunteer at removal efforts.
Resources for Native Plants
You’lll have to do your research in order to determine whether a particular plant is invasive in your area. A great place to start your research is on the USDA website’s Introduced, Invasive and Noxious Plants page.
You can also find a State and Master Gardener Extension Program near you so you can talk to an expert in your particular region.
In addition, most state government websites will also have regional resources available to you. Check for the .gov at the end of the domain name for these resources.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plants of North America Database
- NWF Native Plant Finder
- Audubon Native Plants Database (search by zipcode)
- Find a Master Gardener Extension by zipcode
Resources for Invasive Plants
- Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States
- USDA: Introduced, Invasive and Noxious Plants
- US Geological Survey Open-File Report – first comprehensive list of non-native species established in three major regions of the United States. Access the report and the data.
- Is Non-Native and Invasive the Same Thing? on PrettyPurpleDoor.com
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