Native Plants

In summer, birds love the berries of arrowwood viburnum

North America has a rich and varied flora, yet the plants in our gardens rarely come from our woods and prairies. Instead they are native to other continents. This is true for our tulips, iris, peonies, astilbes, forsythias, lilacs, ginkos and other beloved garden species. Despite the fact that many of plants of native to eastern North America are stunningly beautiful, most have failed to find an entry into this countryís horticultural trade and from there into our gardens. Fortunately, this is now changing.

In recent years, the call for sustainable landscapes has taken on urgency, and native plants play an important role in the quest for ecological sensitivity. To begin with, they are adapted to our climate which promises easy maintenance. Kentucky, like much of eastern North America, belongs to the northern temperate zone that encircles the globe. But we do not have the cool wet summers of northern Europe or the mild winters of southern Europe, where most of our garden plants originate. All plants growing here need to cope with harsh wet winters, moist springs, hot and dry summers, and even drier autumns. Our native plants have coped with these climate conditions for hundreds if not thousands of years and are likely to be better citizens in our gardens than transplants from other parts of the world.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

We think of our gardens as places where we commune with nature, but the plants we typically grow may do little to sustain the web of life that is natureís essential characteristic. Whatís missing are the animals. Even when we provide nesting boxes for birds so that we can watch new generations emerge, we may ignore the fact that bird parents feed a diet of caterpillars to their fledglings. Caterpillars are voracious consumers of leaves, and they have a strong preference for the leaves of native plants because their digestive systems have co-evolved with these plants for thousands of years. How will those young birds get to adulthood in our gardens, if we do not provide nourishment for caterpillars, because we insist on growing plants that they canít eat?

Two bumblebees on swamp milkweed

Many people believe that all bee-like insects are out to sting them (which they are not). Most plants, including most of our food plants, depend on insects for pollination, which means they cannot reproduce themselves without their help. Bees are by far the most important pollinators and nature would collapse without them. Gardens are ideally suited to provide habitat for bees. A selection of native plants that bloom in succession throughout the growing season will go a long way not only to provide habitat for bees and other pollinators but also to put real life into an ornamental garden.