Why Are Native Plants So Important?

i Feb 1, 2021 No Comments by

Authored by Frances Black

In our eco-conscious age, low-impact gardening is an idea whose time has come. The concept behind it is simple: You plant a landscape that enhances, rather than stresses, the local environment. No tool is more important to the low-impact approach than native plants.

Naturally occurring plants provide familiar food and shelter for local birds and wildlife. But their value extends far beyond that. Native plants, which co-evolved with local fauna, support insects, which even seed-eating birds need to nourish their young. Insects, in turn, serve other purposes besides providing an avian lunch. They pollinate other plants and can digest plant and animal waste. But the bugs that mean so much to the birds cannot survive on non-native exotic plants that inhabit some gardens.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Photo by Byan England

Natural pollinators and other garden friends aren’t limited to the creepy-crawlies. They include some of the most beautiful garden visitors. In addition to birds, the right native plantings will lure a wide array of butterflies  to your wildlife-friendly yard

Common Buckeye on Coneflower. Photo by Robert Oberfelder.

An exotic or invasive plant, no matter how lovely, poses a threat to native plant populations because you can’t control their propagation. Across the region — and the country — vigorous exotic plants have crowded out natural habitats already under stress from development and other human activities. This makes it even harder for birds and other wildlife to survive. The mimosa, tree of heaven, Russian and autumn olive trees are examples of invasives that crowd out the local plants. When you plant natives such as American holly and swamp milkweed, you take a small step in reversing this process. Your native plants help beget others in the larger ecosystem.

Ilex opaca, American Holly. Photo by Will Cook

Ilex opaca, American Holly. Photo by Will Cook

Native plants, by definition, evolved to thrive in the local climate, weathering heat, cold, drought, and floods. This means they need less water than their exotic brethren, saving time, money, and, most of all, water itself. Native plants also are naturally resistant to local diseases, reducing the need for artificial pesticides and herbicides. That’s better for the environment and for you, creating a healthier outdoor human sanctuary right in your own backyard.

North Carolina is home to thousands of native species. Some, such as the dwarf crested iris and eastern blue star, offer beautiful showy flowers. Others, including black cherry and elderberry trees, give us colorful fruits and seeds, and some provide seasonal colors. At the same time, these beautiful plants are also rugged, requiring little maintenance once established. Ardent gardeners, who love to get their hands in the soil and to trim and putter, don’t have to sacrifice the joy of this beloved hobby. In a garden, there’s always something. Time saved in one place can always be used elsewhere.

Chionanthus virginicus - photo by Will Cook

Chionanthus virginicus – photo by Will Cook

Planting with natives is a classic win-win. It’s good for the ecosystem, the economy, and wildlife. It also enhances your property with ease, while expressing your love and respect for the natural world around you.


Frances Black is an environmental journalist whose home is filled with native plants and flowers. When she’s not tending to her indoor plants, you’ll find her in her vegetable garden, whose bounty she doesn’t mind sharing with the local wildlife.



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