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by High Country Gardens

Understanding Native Plants: What Are They and How Can You Use Them?

What is a native plant? The definition is not all that easy and opinions differ, even among experts. Most would agree that a plant found growing and reproducing naturally in a region over a very long period of time (and prior to any human interference) is native to that particular area. But consider this:

Let's assume that we find a plant near Socorro, New Mexico. We gather seed and plant it in Santa Fe. Is it still a native plant even though we've moved it to an area where it is not found in nature? This is where opinions vary greatly. The plant is a native to New Mexico but perhaps just to a particular area of the state. However, it will grow elsewhere if transported by man. Is it still native?

Patio with view Santa Fe 97 - group of native plants

Understanding Native Plants and Microclimates

To truly consider a plant native to your area, it should be found within the same type of ecosystem within your region. For instance, the Santa Fe region is considered Southern Rocky Mountains, while Socorro is part of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert.

To truly consider a plant native to your area, it should be found within the same type of ecosystem within your region

But as we all know, there are many microclimates to consider. Altitude, rainfall, and soil type all influence which plants grow best within a particular area. Add the effects of our manmade environment and we change things again, making some areas moister with better soil, or slightly warmer or cooler due to proximity to a structure.

However, because many common native plants have wide ranging distribution in their native habitats, they are usually quite adaptable as long as their basic soil and moisture preferences are met. That allows us to use plants that may not be a true native to our area but could thrive in the conditions we have.

What are the Advantages of Gardening with Native Plants?

  • They have evolved to grow reliably in less than ideal conditions without significant care once they're well established.
  • They are resistant to common pests and provide food (foliage, fruit or seeds) and cover for songbirds and beneficial insects.
  • They thrive in the soils and climatic conditions of the local area. But make sure your landscape contains similar conditions. For example, a plant living in a wetland or riparian area would not be suitable for a xeric location and vice versa.

Why Not Use Them More Often?

Native plants have traditionally been perceived by farmers and ranchers simply as weeds that must be eradicated from cultivated fields and pastures. While local townspeople often consider them too common to deserve a place in their gardens. People mistakenly think wild plants aren't as attractive as cultivated species. But browse through books or catalogs that contain native plants, take a hike with a knowledgeable plant person, or view a botanical garden that has native plants and this is easily refuted.

Zinnia grandiflora Golden Eye - understanding native plants
Zinnia Grandiflora is a an example of a native plant to be added to a perennial garden.

Use of native plants in your landscape gives your property a sense of place that reflects the region in which you live. You probably wouldn't move to Colorado because it reminds you of Ohio.

In a perennial border native plants can stand alone or be mixed with cultivated species with similar needs. A few western intermountain favorites are:

Native shrubs and trees provide structure to the landscape and often provide food, shelter or both to birds and other animals. Fail-proof but pretty favorites include:

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