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Native plant species prompt a back-to-our-roots movement

Early horticulturalists had a lot in common with archeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones. Discovering new and exotic plant species was high adventure for generations of people.

U.S. botanist David Fairchild was one such trailblazer and for whom the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration is named — America’s highest honour for botanical-explorers. Fairchild is credited with introducing more than 200,000 exotic plants and crops to North America, including soybeans, pistachios and mangoes early in the last century.

Local plant sales, like this recent event at the Toronto Botanical Garden, can offer a variety of native varieties.
Local plant sales, like this recent event at the Toronto Botanical Garden, can offer a variety of native varieties.  (www.markcullen.com)

Indeed, we can thank plant explorers from the last 400 or so years for broadening available plant sources. A new trend, though, has been evolving and it’s taking us in the opposite direction.

The woodland plant trillium is the official provincial flower of Ontario.
The woodland plant trillium is the official provincial flower of Ontario.

Native plant varieties have increasingly become the focus of gardeners, and are generally defined as “species which existed in North America prior to European contact.” Some reasons to consider planting native species:

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  • They are generally well adapted to local insect populations. While providing sustenance to pollinators, they are resistant to pests.
  • Non-pollinator wildlife also often depends on native plants for food and habitat. Our native milkweed is a good example of this, as it provides habitat and food for Monarch butterfly larvae.
  • Native plant species rarely threaten surrounding natural areas. Those plants that are classified as “invasive” are almost always imports.
  • Native plants usually require no additional water or fertilizer after they have been established, provided they’re planted in a place appropriate to their requirements.

There is some debate among native plant enthusiasts about what constitutes a “native” — sometimes broken into three categories.

1. Pure “native” typically refers to a species genetically consistent with what would be found in the wild.

2. “Nativars” are selections made by plant breeders from the natural variation found in the species. Hybridizing of native plants is how we end up with “purple coneflowers” (Echinacea purpurea) in colours other than purple.

3. “Local genotype native” is grown from seedstock that is local to where you are buying it. The idea is that the local-genotype plant will be even better adapted to the exact conditions of its locale.

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Lorraine Johnson, a friend of ours and expert on native plants, has written and published a list of books, and recently released the third edition of 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants. “One of the greatest satisfactions of growing native plants is that you are supporting a complex web of ecological relationships that are the basis of a healthy, resilient ecosystem,” she says.

Some of our favourites:

Lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) loves sunlight, is drought tolerant and puts on a long, summer show of jolly yellow flowers. Bees and butterflies depend on this reliable bloomer.

A bee makes use of a lance-leaved coreopsis's pollen and nectar.
A bee makes use of a lance-leaved coreopsis’s pollen and nectar.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) has an impressive flower that blooms in late summer in partial to full sun. The “obedient” part of this plant is that when you bend the spike-like flowers horizontally, they stay that way for a while. The most exciting thing about this plant, in Mark’s opinion, is that it attracts hummingbirds.

The late-summer blooms of obedient plants are known to attract hummingbirds
The late-summer blooms of obedient plants are known to attract hummingbirds

Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) makes an excellent ground cover along the borders of your yard. A woodland plant, creeping phlox prefers rich humus and partial-to-full shade. In the spring, enjoy the clusters of blue flowers.

There are many more native plants worthy of your attention, including woodland plants like jack-in-the-pulpit and trilliums. Keep an eye out for natives at plant sales and garden centres, always make sure that they are nursery grown and not dug up from the wild and enjoy a greener, healthier and more natural environment.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s Morning Show.

TORONTO STAR