This article was written by Bipin Dhinsa.
People always ask: “What’s the difference between planting native plants vs non-native plants?” In short native plants change the world for the better.
The term “native plant” has several definitions. In general, a native plant is described as a plant that has existed in the region for thousands, if not millions, of years and has evolved with other plants and wildlife in the same region over that time. Native plants can include ferns, grasses, perennials, annuals, shrubs, vines, among others. Some may already be growing in your garden! Popular native garden plants include: New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hop Trees (Ptelea trifoliata) and Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis).
Non-native plants are plants that grow outside their evolved ranges in nature. Some non-native plants have become invasive and actively spread to natural areas, threatening our native plant communities. Some native plants are certainly more aggressive than others, but that does not make them invasive. The difference between an aggressive plant and an invasive plant is the harm that it causes ecosystems, the economy, or human health. By using site-specific and site-appropriate native plants, we can reduce the risk of introducing non-native invasive species.
There are a variety of reasons as to why you should plant native plants, but the most compelling is that native plants preserve biodiversity.
What is biodiversity? Biodiversity refers to the variety of different types of organisms that live in a particular area. Native wildlife, such as birds, butterflies and other organisms, have co-evolved with native plants. Unfortunately, large lawns and non-native plants have replaced many of our natural areas. A garden without native plants becomes an ecological desert for pollinating insects such as Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), bees, and other wildlife that are essential to our survival. If we do not have insects to pollinate our plants, then we will be facing ecological and economic crisis.
Insect populations are in major decline, most notably the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Western populations, which have seen a 99.9% decline since the 1980s. Planting native plants is a great way to help our insect populations. A native plant can host a lot more biodiversity than non-native plants because it is able to provide more food and shelter to a greater amount of wildlife species. For example, a native Goldenrod plant is able to support 115 different types of caterpillar species compared to Phragmites, an invasive plant, which is only able to host a variety of 4 caterpillar species. Without insects to pollinate our crops we would have to rely on humans to perform the task of pollination. This is happening in China, where there is a shortage of bees to pollinate. This has resulted in some fruit crops requiring an expensive technique called "hand-pollination" to produce fruit.
In addition, native plants are needed to support songbirds. Most young birds need to feed on insects; some species of baby birds need up to 7,000+ caterpillars before becoming an adult. Native plants provide the habitat that wildlife needs (food, shelter, and places to raise their young among other reasons). Without native plants, our wildlife is endangered, it is as simple as that. We can help our ecosystems by planting native plants in our gardens, assisting in conservation projects such as Pollinator Pathways, and donating to conservation organizations that promote planting native plant species.
Native plants are also generally easier to grow and cheaper to care for. Some native plants, such as the female Cypripedium genus, have strict requirements and are most comfortable in the wild, but native plants have evolved here and are well adapted to our climate and soil. This means that once established, they are generally easy to care for and require little or no pruning, toppings, watering, or fertilization. Large lawns and flashy non-native plants require the heavy use of fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides and supplemental water, making native plants a cheaper option. If you place the native plant in a place that provides favorable conditions such as soil type, amount of water, sunlight and shade, then it will prosper. It is always important, however, to remember the mantra "Right plant, right place".
From spring and summer flowers to bright autumn colors and interesting winter bark, native plants bring seasonal beauty all year round. You can find native species with colours, textures, or growth habits similar to most non-native plants, making it that much easier to have a beautiful garden while helping our ecosystems. Never take native plants from the wild or throw away unwanted plants into ecosystems - these actions threaten native plant populations and lead to the destruction of the ecosystem; always buy from trusted sources, such as Ontario Native Plants (onplants.ca); and dispose of unwanted plants properly (e.g. garbage, burning).
Your favorite nursery may already stock native plants or you may want to find one that specializes in native plants specifically. Research the native plants that grow naturally in your area, get reliable and impartial information from University and Government publications and websites, and visit local nurseries and garden shops for inspiration.
Please, do your best to use native plants in your garden. Preserving biodiversity, our ecosystems, enhancing the livability of your home, and ensuring a legacy for your children and grandchildren is something we all should want to work towards.
Photos: Wild Bergamot (Jane Bowles), Blue Vervain (David Wake), Common Milkweed (Darby Alderson)
China Dialogue - Dave Goulson 2012, accessed 4 February 2022,
PNAS - PNAS January 5, 2016 113 (1) 146-151, accessed 4 February 2022, https://www.pnas.org/content/113/1/146 MSU Extension - Accessed 4 February 2022, https://www.canr.msu.edu/nativeplants/pollination/
Emma Pelton & Stephanie McKnight 2021, accessed 4 February 2022, https://xerces.org/blog/western-monarch-population-closer-to-extinction-as-wait-continues-for-monarchs-protection