It is nice to have a ‘true’ winter this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed the snowflakes that have been falling lately, however maybe not so much the ice that comes when it melts. While being shut inside covered in blankets and fueled by hot beverages does not seem like gardening behavior, February is prime garden planning time. I thought this month I would appeal to you all to plant as many Virginia natives in your gardens as possible instead of enticing but problematic invasive species.
What is the difference between a native plant and a non-native or invasive one? A plant is considered native if it has been found naturally here in North America prior to European settlement. There are plants native to the United States, Virginia, and even separate regions of Virginia. Native plants provide year-round support for wildlife, help keep our soils rich in nutrients, prevent erosion, as well as provide us with natural beauty.
A plant is considered non-native, or even invasive, if it comes from another place and is introduced. The European settlers really did a lot of this in the early years of their arrival, and a lot of plants that seem native to us are actually introduced. Even the honey bee is not native to this continent, although it feels like it belongs. Introductions of non-native plants did not stop with the early settlers, however, and it is even still happening today. One dramatic example of this is the kudzu we find growing all over the place. It was introduced in 1876 as an ornamental plant, and in the 1920s-30s as a plant for erosion control. Native to Japan and southeast China, kudzu grows an alarming one foot per day when established and has quickly overpowered native plant populations all throughout the South. While efforts are still being made to curb the enthusiastic vines, it has done a lot of damage to our native forests in the Southeast part of the US.
Why is this such an issue? Non-native plant species are just that–not from here. As a result their ability to grow and expand changes the natural environment surrounding them. Even if they are not considered invasive, putting a plant from a different climate into your garden may give you additional work that a native plant would not require. Non-native plants also use up resources that would normally be allocated to native species, and change the composition of the nutrients in the soil. Many invasive plants spread quickly and overpower what is already established, and with no native predators to eat it and keep it pruned, it can quickly take over if unchecked.
There are countless benefits to providing more native plants to our gardens and public spaces. Aside from their natural beauty as mentioned before, native species encourage biodiversity and can even protect endangered species from dying out. One example of this is the monarch butterfly, once abundant and now considered vulnerable and on the way to becoming endangered in North America. One reason? They primarily consume milkweed in this part of the world, which is being choked out by invasive plants, mowed down, and killed from pesticides which makes it less numerous as it has been in the past. No milkweed means no North American monarch, which is a very devastating thing to think about.
Native plants also are adapted to local climates, rainfall, and seasonal shifts. While we are all experiencing climate change at an unprecedented rate, native plant species have been adapting along with the rest of us and are learning how to live in our new normal. Introducing new species into the garden that aren’t as used to the nuances of a Valley summer may require more work and not be as successful as an established native plant.
If this information has piqued interest in planting native plants in your garden this year, I recommend you continue researching which species will work best for your situation. There is a wonderful non-profit organization called Plant Virginia Natives that has a Valley chapter–Plant Ridge & Valley Natives! The main website is plantvirginianatives.org and you can find the Plant Ridge & Valley Natives page under the “Regional Native Plant Campaigns/Guides” link. Happy planting!