Is a plant from South America better than a cultivar in WNY?

monarch on milkweed
This milkweed plant is native to Western New York. Try to get plants that are native to our region. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

A reader contacted me regarding a previous article on zinnias. The reader wanted native zinnias, and the zinnias described in the article were all cultivars, not native plants.

No one around here sells native zinnias because zinnias aren’t native to Western New York. In the United States, zinnias are native only to the Southwest. Their range stretches all the way to South America.

My reader replied: “I understand this, but they are at least native to the Americas.”

Is a plant that’s native to South America better than a cultivar?

What is a native plant?

When we talk about native plants, we’re talking about plants that were here before Europeans arrived, said Ken Parker, co-founder of the Western New York Native Plant Collaborative.

But just because a plant was in South America—or North America—before Europeans arrived, that doesn’t mean that the plant is native plant to Western New York.

“It’s a regional thing,” Parker said. For us “a native plant should be indigenous to Western New York.

“The native plants that grow in Pennsylvania and Ohio are different from what grows here,” he said, “though there is some overlap. ‘Native’ means indigenous to where you live.”

David O’Donnell of the Eastern Monarch Butterfly and Native Plant Farm in Clarence agrees. He aims to increase the monarch population by restoring and replacing indigenous natural habitat as well as educating people.

He makes sure to gather milkweed seeds from our area rather than bringing them in from other areas.

“If I buy milkweed from Michigan, it might bloom at a different time—maybe too early or too late for the monarchs here,” O’Donnell said.

Native zinnias from the Southwest probably wouldn’t contribute to the Western New York environment. It might not even thrive here.

“The Southwest habitat is very different from ours,” Parker said, noting the difference in rainfall, frost and other conditions between the areas.

Why are native plants important?

The plants and animals in an ecosystem rely on each other, said Lyn Chimera of Lessons from Nature.

When we think about plants that help our environment, we often think about plants that provide for pollinators. Yes, native insects and birds need to eat, but they need habitat, too. They need host plants.

For example, milkweed, which is native to Western New York, is a host plant for monarchs. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed.

When the caterpillar emerges from the egg, it feeds on the milkweed. In fact, milkweed is the only thing monarch caterpillars can eat. There is no other plant, native or non-native, that can provide what monarch eggs and caterpillars need.

If you use a native plant from a different area that doesn’t interact with the animals here, “It’s the same as a non-native plant,” Chimera said.

Plants that aren’t native to our area may not provide the habitat that native insects, birds and other animals need.

Some introduced plants are beneficial

Now we’re getting into a gray area.

Queen Anne’s lace & more for eastern black swallowtail

The eastern black swallowtail, a native butterfly, uses a native plant called golden Alexandra as a host plant.

But the eastern black swallowtail uses other host plants that you might already have in your garden or near your home.

Queen Anne’s lace is an introduced plant,” O’Donnell said. “So are parsley, dill and fennel.

“The eastern black swallowtail has adapted to these plants and lays their eggs on the plants.”

The native golden Alexandra is in the carrot family, and so are Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, dill and fennel. We don’t have to worry about the herbs; they are annuals and won’t take over the landscape, O’Donnell said.

Queen Anne’s lace has been naturalized in our area; it grows on its own without us planting or tending it. However, it isn’t an invasive species. Still, he doesn’t suggest planting Queen Anne’s lace in your garden because there are plenty of those flowers in the wild.

butterfly on purple coneflower
Many pollinators in Western New York use purple coneflowers. Those plants are helpful even though they aren’t native to Western New York. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflowers are prairie flowers that native to North America, but not native to Western New York. However, purple coneflowers can be helpful to native butterflies, O’Donnell said.

A lot of pollinators feed from the purple coneflowers.

“Plant as many natives as you can,” he said, “but you don’t have to tear out your coneflowers. They do provide some benefit.”

You may also find coneflowers that are red, yellow, white or other colors, but those are cultivars of the native purple coneflower. He recommends that you stick with the purple coneflower.

And some introduced plants aren’t helpful

Butterfly bush

There are some introduced plants that might make you think you’re helping native butterflies, but you’re not.

From its name, you would think the butterfly bush, which is from China, would be helpful to butterflies. It does attract butterflies, but that shrub could be a trap.

O’Donnell told of a gardener who found 10 pairs of wings under her butterfly bush. She saw two Chinese mantises which were hiding in the bush, waiting for butterflies to be drawn to it. She dug the bush out.

“Those mantises are big,” O’Donnell said. “They could even eat a hummingbird. I saw a picture of a Chinese mantis that snapped up a hummingbird. They’re fast.”

The Carolina mantis, which is native to our area, is much smaller. Most of the mantises you see are non-native.

Chinese mantises can prey on insects we don’t want, but they can also feed on native insects. You can buy Chinese mantis eggs, but O’Donnell suggested not to. “You don’t want to overwhelm you property with non-native mantises all over your property.”

Invasive species

There are plants from other areas that definitely harmful to the Western New York environment.

One example is the black swallow-wort and pale swallow-wort.

“They are in the milkweed family and look like milkweed, but they don’t act like milkweed” for monarch butterflies, O’Donnell said. “It’s not a host plant; it’s toxic to the monarch caterpillar.

“Monarchs sometimes get tricked into using these plants. They lay their eggs on the plant, but when the caterpillars feed on the plant, the caterpillars die.”

These swallow-wort plants also outcompete our local milkweed plants. The swallow-worts climb up common milkweed and the common milkweed falls over, he said.

To make matters worse, the swallow-worts “have a massive root bed,” he said. “Chemicals won’t eradicate it. If you leave even a few fibers of the roots, it will just regenerate.

“Everyone should look out for this plant. If you have one or two plants, that’s the time to dig it up and get rid of it. Just make sure to get all the pieces. If you have too much to dig up, at least don’t let it go to seed—take off the seed pods.”

See more in this segment with Terry Belke on Channel 2 to the Outdoors.

Lost habitat

Back in the 1920s, Western New York had Karner blue butterflies. That was back when we had native lupine, O’Donnell said, the only host plant for these beautiful butterflies.

The native lupine’s habitat is gone due to agriculture. It’s hard to find native lupine in the wild and it’s difficult to grow. The plant needs sandy, well drained soil.

It also needs large areas to grow in. The only population of the butterflies in New York State is in Pine Bush Preserve in Albany, near Karner (which give the butterfly its name.)

Complicating matters is that it has been a long time since we had the native lupine here.

“The climate was different 100 years ago,” he said.

Closing thoughts

Some plants that have been introduced to Western New York can provide benefits to native insects, birds and animals, whether they came from a different continent or a different part of our country.

But if we want native plants, we should start with plants that are native to Western New York.

“We need to coexist” with the plants and animals that are native to our area, O’Donnell said. “When one thing disappears, it will have an effect on something.

“We just might not know what that effect is until it’s too late.”

6 Comments on “Is a plant from South America better than a cultivar in WNY?

  1. Hi Carol, Spiraea tomentosa (Steeplebush) is native to the eastern US and Canada, so it’s probably native here, too. Thanks for telling us about that.

  2. This is a great article. I had four butterfly bushes (started with only one, and it spread) – I dug them up a couple years ago and replaced them with Spiraea tomentosa (Steeplebush). The flowers are similar to the butterfly bush.

  3. This article is very informative. My butterfly bush has a birds nest in it. I hope the birds eat any chinese mantises that come along. Please post what other flowers are native to WNY. Thanks

  4. This is the best explanation of native plants ever! Thank you, Connie for doing the work to provide local gardeners a very clear explanation of native species. The relationship between a native host and other native species is crystal clear. No more butterfly bush for me!

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