July/August 2012

In Search of Natives

By Joene Hendry

As more gardeners discover the benefits of planting native perennials, shrubs and trees, ready-to-plant "natives" are becoming more readily available.

Natives are evolutionally suited to local conditions, are considered low-maintenance and attract beneficial insects and birds.

But ask plant aficionados their definition of a native plant, or do a bit of native plant research, and you quickly learn there are many interpretations of the term native.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a native plant as one "developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem.

Naturalized plants, by contrast, are non-natives introduced by humans that do not need human intervention to hold their own in a region in which they did not originally exist.

Regional invasive plants fall under the naturalized classification but have an added thug-like habit of quickly crowding out natives.

Accordingly, American bittersweet is native, Oriental bittersweet is a non-native naturalized invasive, and dandelions, thought to have been brought by Europeans yet very happy on this side of the pond, are naturalized.

If a plant grew in the U.S. prior to European settlement and is therefore considered native, the NRCS further qualifies its classification with a geographic region such as the Northeast, New England, or Connecticut.

Geographic descriptors are important because plants can develop specialized genotypes as they evolve, over time, to adapt to local conditions.

A plant considered native in Connecticut, but actually grown from seed originating in another state where it may also be native, can have a slightly different genetic code than the same type of plant grown from Connecticut seed. A rose may be a rose by any other name but the genotype of a rose grown in Minnesota or Missouri may differ slightly from one grown in Connecticut.

Why does this matter? Because, to thrive in local conditions, local insects co-evolved along with local plants. As oft-cited native habitat advocate Doug Tallamy explains in his book Bringing Nature Home, most native plant-eaters find alien plants (those not indigenous to a locality) unpalatable or unrecognizable as potential food.

Continued planting of non-natives impedes the lifecycles of the insects that pollinate our own food plants and serve as food sources for other creatures that feed still other creatures farther along the food chain.

Gardeners can be the front-line defenders against native habitat loss by increasing the number and divesity of native perennials, shrubs and trees in their landscapes.

Visit a botanic garden or an arboretum with established native plantings for ideas. The Connecticut College Arboretum in New London has wonderful native plantings.

Whether deciding to plant local genotypes, currently seen as the best choice if available, or regionally local natives to New England or the Northeast, Connecticut gardeners have many retail native plant resources from which to choose.

[Editor's Note: our links page at www.conngardener.com/links.html has a list of sources for native plants and seeds that we update periodically.]

Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery (www.earthtonesnatives.com) in Woodbury grows grasses, ferns, perennials, shrubs and trees from seeds and cuttings. About 80% of the stock originates from Connecticut genotypes. Earth Tones maintains an online plant list but urges visitors to check in advance before visiting to ensure availability of a sought-after plant.

Other retail nursery growers of natives include Perennial Harmony (www.perennialharmony.com), growing New England natives for two to three years at the nursery before placing them for sale in the completely organic retail nursery in Waterford; Woodland Trails (www.woodlandtrailswildflowers.com), offering many North American native plants for sale at the nursery located in Eastford/Ashford; and Silk Tree Gardens (www.silktreegardens.com), propagating native and non-native, non-invasive trees in Bridgeport.

Native plant seekers can also head to their favorite retail nursery. Some stock the American Beauties line of native plants (www.abnativeplants.com), which partners with large-scale regional growers to supply locally grown natives to plant retailers. Pride's Corner Farm in Lebanon is the American Beauties grower supplying New England retail nurseries.

Many of our state's retail nurseries purchase Connecticut, New England and Northeast native perennials, shrubs and trees from Summer Hill Nursery, a wholesale nursery in Madison. Check out Summer Hill's website (www.summerhillnursery.com) for the native plants they grow and the retail nurseries they supply. Other retail nurseries field- or greenhouse-grow many of the perennials, shrubs and trees, including natives, they offer for sale.

The best way to learn the source of any plants you plan to buy is to ask. When purchasing natives, heed the advice of the Connecticut Botanical Society: buy from reputable sources willing to guarantee their natives as nursery propagated and not dug from the wild.

Also, don't gather natives yourself from the wild except when they are about to be destroyed by development, and only when you have the landowner's permission.

For More Information

Connecticut Botanical Society: Gardening with Native Plants -- www.ct-botanical-society.org/garden/

Connecticut Native Shrubs List -- www.cipwg.uconn.edu/pdfs/CTNativeShrubList_Lubell.pdf

Connecticut Native Tree and Shrub Availability List -- www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/wildlife/pdf_files/habitat/ntvtree.pdf

Endangered, Threatened & Special Concern Plants of Connecticut -- www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2702&q=323482&depNav_GID=1628

Highstead Arboretum – www.highstead.net

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Connecticut Recommended -- www.wildflower.org/collections/collection.php?collection=CT

The Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY -- www.nativeplantcenter.org

The Native Plant Collection at Connecticut College Arboretum -- www.conncoll.edu/green/arbo/the-native-plant-collection.htm

Native Plant List for CT, MA, RI -- www.plantnative.org/rpl-nes.htm

New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham, Mass. -- www.newfs.org

U.S. natives listed in Alternatives for Invasive Ornamental Plant Species -- www.cipwg.uconn.edu/pdfs/CTAlternatives04Revised90res.pdf

Joene Hendry is a gardener and writer. As a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and owner of Gardens & Turf, she offers garden design, coaching and maintenance to homeowners in the lower Connecticut River Valley. She's a member of the Connecticut Horticultural Society and chronicles her gardening experiences at Joene's Garden.