There has been a lot of interest in native plants in recent years, and some of you may be asking yourself why. You say that native plants are not as visually striking as our ornamental classics, or that native plant gardens look much less formal. These statements are understandable, but with a little creativity we can use native plants to create a landscape that is more sustainable, more ecologically useful, and just as beautiful as traditional landscape.
The strongest argument in favor of native species is that when they are placed carefully, they are more sustainable. Georgia has a wide variety of natural landscapes; there are dense hardwood forests, open pine meadows, rolling clay hills, and steep mountain slopes all represented in our state. This ecological diversity means that we have a wide variety of plants that can be used to fill out the unique environments our landscapes contain. Native azaleas prefer acidic soil, so by using these plants you end up using less lime to reduce soil acidity. Oak leaf hydrangeas can grow in part shade while still providing an impressive summer display. Blue wild indigo and pink muhly grass tolerate dry soil after they have been established, so you can reduce irrigation to a flowerbed containing these species. Whatever landscape challenges you face, there is likely a native plant that can meet that challenge.
Since native plants are better adapted for our environment, they often do not experience the same amount of stress as nonnative plant species. Stress has a similar effect on plants as it does on us: when we are stressed, we are more likely to get sick because our immune system is compromised. When a plant is happy in its location, it is better able to withstand attack from pests or diseases. Using native plants is not a guarantee that you will avoid all pest problems, but you ensure that the plants you are using are more resistant to North American pests and diseases.
Another reason you should consider using native plants is that they give your landscape a purpose. Native plants are pivotal in supporting our native pollinators who have been in decline for years. Coral bells and wild indigo provide early spring nectar that pollinators so desperately need coming out of winter. Bee balm, eastern purple coneflower, buttonbush, and milkweeds provide forage through the entirety of summer. As temperatures begin to cool goldenrod and ironweed are essential to pollinators as they prepare for winter. There are some native pollinators that depend on a small group of native plants to survive. Plants in the blueberry and rose family, Ericaceae and Rosaceae, are important for the native blueberry bee, and long-horn bees rely on goldenrods and asters.
Adding flowering plants to the landscape is the obvious way to help pollinators, but we should also consider host plants. These are trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that provide food to the larval stages of pollinators. For example, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar depends on the spicebush shrub for foliar forage. Spicebush can be planted in partial shade, it has yellow flowers in spring, and the leaves have a spicy fragrance when they are crushed. Zebra swallowtails depend on pawpaw tree leaves to gain the energy they need to metamorphosize, and the fruit of the pawpaw tree is edible. Native ferns such as southern wood fern, southern maiden fern, and cinnamon fern can be forage for larvae as well, so next time you are looking for a ground cover for a shaded area, consider a native fern.
Native plants can be visually striking in your landscape, but they can also be useful in creating a better environment for people and wildlife. If you have any questions about how to use native plants in your landscape, feel free to contact Forsyth County Extension. We would be happy to help you discover new species and plant more sustainably.