What is a Native Plant?
Native plants are everywhere. They are naturally occurring species of plants that co-evolved over time in relationship with other species generally forming a balanced community unique in diversity and composition to any given place. Some native plants are generalists growing under dry forested canopies or moist open fields and wetlands. While some require very specific sunlight, soil, and moisture conditions which limit where and how fast they grow.
It is important to understand these concepts and the natural living conditions of native plants and their ornamental varieties if one wishes to have a healthy and successful native plant garden or even to mix a few natives into an existing landscape.
What does my yard have to do with forests, streams, and Puget Sound?
If you have any interest in natural history, have walked down the street or stood in your backyard wondering what that spot or section of pavement was 100 or 200 years ago then you have begun to realize the stark contrast between present-day neighborhoods, roads, and urbanized areas and the landscape that sustained and awed our great-great-great grandparents. A significant amount of that historic landscape remains. The rain still falls, the remaining trees still catch, filter, and slow some stormwater before it seeps, trickles, and runs into our drains and culverts. The permeable soils of our yards still soak up raindrops and roof runoff before releasing excess water into roads or springing from groundwater and flowing into neighboring ravines and eventually Puget Sound. Tall trees that remain, many of them native Douglas firs, western red cedars, and big-leaf maples still provide spring nesting sites for bushtits, chickadees, and hummingbirds, host a myriad of larval insects which in turn feed hatchling songbirds and provide the relic canopy structure for much of what remains of native plant communities throughout the city. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in Bringing Nature Home, "Gardeners enjoy their hobby for many reasons: a love of plants and nature...the satisfaction of beautifying home and community, the desire to collect rare and unusual species, the healthful benefits of exercise and oudoors, or the pleasure of watching plants grow." Tallamy goes on to explain that "for the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the need of the gardener." Where humans inhabit space, native and natural places are now more than ever the rare and unusual specimens in need of stewardship and advocacy. Whether we realize it or not, gardeners play an important part in the management of our nation's wildlife and functioning ecosystems. Gardeners are land managers, and together they effect significant change, negative or positive, on urban streams, wetlands, prairies, forests, coasts, and marine environments.
"Lack of awareness of the basic unity
of organism and environment is a
serious and dangerous hallucination."
- Alan Wilson Watts
Are Native Plants Beautiful?
What is beautiful? Isn't this a human-derived concept based not on the intrinsic beauty of an object but on our perception of it? The traditional landscape design incorporates plants based on their foliage and color, leaf and bark texture, and overall shape. These are undisputed aspects of plants that make them beautiful to us.
What if we also look at plants not only for their aesthetic value but for the functions they serve to food chains, atmosphere, and watersheds? We would see the connections with essential micro-organisms, insects, birds, mammals, fish, and finally to ourselves. This is a larger and more holistic approach to defining what is beautiful. Making this connection in your thought process and garden choices can open your perception to immeasurable beauty. Regionally native plants are essential to sustaining native wildlife diversity. It is in this biodiversity, that a sense of place and life, and a deeper sense of beauty can be fostered and enjoyed in the garden and elsewhere.
"Nature is a collective idea, and, though its essence
exists in each individual of the species,
can never in its perfection inhabit a single object."
- Henry Fuseli
Gardening and landscaping with native plants is a growing movement made popular by the recognition that native gardens provide the most suitable habitat for local wildlife, are best suited to local places and weather, and usually require little maintenance besides the occasional pruning or summer-drought watering. Make no mistake, gardening is in essence a maintenance activity and no garden, native or otherwise, can exist without some maintenance.
Native plants are now widely used in habitat restoration, highway medians, urban open-spaces, City Hall planting strips, and high-end landscape designs such as the Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle.
When you are ready to make a change in your yard, big or small, consider beginning what could become a life-long and rewarding relationship with native plants and natural places, and a broader view of beauty.