True to our American way of doing things, we are used to going down to the nursery to pick out whatever plant suits our fancy, no matter if its origins are from Madagascar or Borneo. If we find it attractive and we want it, we buy it and we plant it. Yet for many of us there is an annoying little whisper in the back of our minds that says maybe we should be considering plants that are more native to our environment. That is certainly true for me, and while I have a vague idea of why this is so, I decided to do a little more research to get clear on the facts and find resources for “going native”. I found a wealth of information from both the WSU’s Master Gardner website and from King County’s Dept of Natural Resources and Parks website. From WSU I found this great overview:
“Native plants are plants that occur naturally in your region. For example, Douglas-fir is a native plant in much of Western Washington. English holly, on the other hand, is not a native plant in Washington because it was originally brought here by humans (it is, however, a native plant in England). Non-native plants are often called "exotic plants" or "introduced plants." Occasionally they can become a problem, spreading aggressively and damaging wildlife habitat.
The plants native to your region have grown alongside the native insects, fungi, plant diseases, wildlife, and other native plants for thousands of years. This long-time association has produced a complex web of interrelationships, by which the native plant may depend upon numerous other native organisms to survive and flourish, and a multitude of native organisms may, in turn, depend upon that native plant to survive. In the process, native plants have evolved the ability to attract native animals that benefit them (such as pollinating and seed-dispersing insects and birds), and repel or survive native organisms that harm them (such as plant viruses and munching insects). As a result, native plants often attract a wider variety of native animals than do exotic plants. In addition, the plants native to your area are adapted to growing in your region's soils and climate, and so generally require less maintenance (such as watering) than do non-natives.”
Okay, so we know we should use native plants, but we also know we are going to be tempted to buy the beautiful “exotics” we find at the nursery—we just can’t help ourselves. The King County website has a great suggestion for the placement of these plants: “Put your native plant landscape in the less-traveled areas of your property to attract more wildlife. Keep your [exotic flower] beds, vegetable garden and lawn close to the house (and hose) so they get the attention they need with fewer hassles.” The King County site goes on to talk about picking the right plant for the right spot: “Each native plant performs a role in its habitat, so use each plant to its best advantage. To control erosion on the edge of a stream, plant red osier dogwood, willows, Oregon ash and vine maple. To attract hummingbirds, plant red flowering currant and orange honeysuckle. Most important, choose plants that fit your spot when full-grown. Pruning large plants to fit a small area is loads of work and could harm your plant’s health.”
WSU Master Gardner Extension Program
King County Native Plant Guide