by Connie Oswald Stofko
Expect to hear more about native plants in 2019.
A new group called the Western New York Native Plants Collaborative wants you to use more native plants in your garden, and there are lots of reason why you’ll want to use them.
The collaborative is working on an education campaign to get gardeners excited about native plants and to encourage growers and garden centers to offer more native plants.
The WNY Native Plants Collaborative includes members of environmental groups, representatives of municipalities, representatives of community groups, landscape architects, designers, landscapers, educators, students, writers and others. I’m part of the group, too.
Why you should use native plants
As a lazy gardener, first on my list is that native plants tend to be easy to grow.
They exist in the wild without our help, so that makes them low maintenance when we plant them in our gardens, noted Ken Parker, CNLP, a member of the collaborative. Parker is program manager at PUSH Blue, an expert in native plants and a Certified National Green Infrastructure Program Trainer.
Native plants have adapted to our climate, so they can withstand some fluctuations in temperature and precipitation. You don’t have to pamper native plants. That means you can water less, saving on water.
Native plants can withstand natural enemies, meaning you can avoid using pesticides. And native plants can provide excellent habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
But there are reasons for using native plants that may not have occurred to you before.
“You’re preserving the flora—and the look—of Western New York,” Parker said. Landscapes full of native plants “is what Western New York is supposed to look like. It’s too bad that most of the plants in our landscapes are introduced.”
We often choose plants because they are have a pretty flower or solve a landscape issue, but plants can be useful in other ways, too. We have used plants for medicine and dyes in the past, but we have kind of lost that knowledge, he said.
“Why can’t we have plants that are food and are fragrant and help pollinators, too?” he asked.
Parker pointed to a native plant called wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). It’s been used medicinally, offers nectar for bees, has pretty, light purple flowers and can be used in cooking.
Wild bergamot is a member of the mint family and can be used in the spring to make tea, he said. (Don’t confuse this tea with bergamot tea that comes from the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), which is a tropical plant.)
In the summer, the leaves, flowers and stems of wild bergamot can be used as a seasoning in recipes where you would use oregano. It can be used fresh or dried.
When the plant goes to seed, the leaves get a spicy hot flavor, which is great in salsa, he said. You can also use the leaves when you’re canning tomatoes.
Native plants can be more than just another pretty face.
What qualifies as a native plant?
A native plant is a plant that was here before the Europeans arrived and is indigenous to where you live, Parker said.
That would seem to answer the question, but as a member of the collaborative, I have heard many discussions on this topic. If a plant is native to some part of North America, should we count that as a native plant? Or does it have to be native to New York State? Or even more local?
Echinacea, which includes purple coneflower, is considered by many people to be a native plant. While echinacea is native to North America, it’s not native to New York State, Parker pointed out. He thinks local is better, but it’s hard to decide what local means.
“Is ‘local’ within 60 miles? Ninety miles?” asked Parker.
And what about hybrids, also called cultivars or nativars? Do they count as native plants?
The problem with nativars is that they may look like native plants, but they may not work like native plants when it comes to feeding pollinators or other wildlife. (See a summary of an ongoing study of nativars at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware.)
A committee of the WNY Native Plant Collaborative is working with Erie County to create a list of native plants for the county to use in their planting projects. That will be helpful to other municipalities and groups in our area.