Native plants — those species of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials that existed in our region prior to colonization — are superior choices for planting in our yards because these are the species that evolved along with the insects, birds, and other wildlife. Therefore, complex interdependencies and interactions have developed among all these native species. For example, some plants require specific insects for their pollination, and hence reproduction; some birds and animals depend on the foliage and/or fruits of certain plants for food; some insects can only access the nectar they need to feed on from particular shapes of flowers (that are often not found in the ornamental varieties of flowers designed for human eyes rather than for insect needs); and the majority of insects and animals also use plants for shelter, and these needs are best met by native plants.
The glorious-looking ornamentals that have become the primary offerings at most nurseries provide very few of the above needs for wildlife. They have been selected and bred for qualities such as biggest flowers, or unique colors, or variety of leaf shapes and patterns that may appeal to gardeners. But they have lost the specific shapes or sizes or chemistry upon which the insects and other wildlife have developed dependence.
Shopping for a native plant? CAUTION: Make sure you check the scientific name on the nursery tag, and choose the plant that is labeled with just the genus and species [such as Echinacea purpurea] and without an additional indicator of a nativar or hybrid [such as Echinacea purpurea Magnus]. These are apt to be less attractive and/or less nutritious to pollinating insects that the original native species.
Furthermore, many plants offered by nurseries have been imported from other parts of the world. These are not only highly unlikely to support our native wildlife, but inevitably are imported without the predators and diseases that kept them under control in their original environment. Hence, some such plants become invasive – no longer confined to our gardens but growing everywhere and choking out diverse native plants and in turn causing loss of wildlife habitat.
Our beautiful and diverse native plants have an additional advantage beside the above-mentioned ornamentals: that they will likely grow well in your yard and in our parks and other public spaces without the constant treatment with synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. Your yard can become not only a beautiful and diverse mini ecosystem, but without the periodic spraying of toxic chemicals, it can also be healthier for people and pets.
link to species lists for our region [e.g. CCE; Audubon; etc]