Among gardeners, interest in native plants is booming. Sales are increasing by up to 30% at regular nurseries, as well as those specializing in native plants and through groups like Maine Audubon, which sells natives every year. The soon to be released ‘Northeast Native Plant Primer’ is designed to promote this growing interest and provide gardeners with useful information.
Its author, Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture for the Massachusetts-based Native Plant Trust, discussed the book and the native gardening trend in a recent online meeting. What’s behind the trend? People are increasingly aware that pollinators are struggling, the climate is changing and many wildlife species are under threat, he said, and gardeners want to help. Additionally, as new home development pushes more and more toward what was once wildlife habitat, some homeowners are looking to replace native plants displaced by construction.
They should keep in mind that not all native plants are created equal. It is important to read labels carefully. If a plant you’re considering for your garden is labeled “native to the United States,” or even native to eastern Mississippi, it may not thrive in your garden. “Our political borders don’t really matter when it comes to plants,” Lorimer said.
Instead, when selecting native plants, people should consider ecoregions, he said. A map from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that Maine is made up of parts of three ecoregions. The northeast coastal area stretches from Casco Bay to the southern tip of New York State. The Acadian Plains and Hills comprise the eastern half of the rest of the state and extend into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Northern Uplands include the rest of Maine, non-coastal New Hampshire, most of Vermont, and parts of Quebec. Not all of Maine’s native plants grow in all three ecoregions.
Lorimer’s mention of these regions brought to mind Maine Audubon’s decision last summer to sell plants at its Native Plant Sale that are not actually Maine native – or, in the case of the Northern Blazing Star ( Liatris scariosa) – are native only to southern tip Maine. Others in this same category were lanceolate coreopsis and scarlet lemon balm. They are native to southern Maine but as the weather gets warmer they are definitely becoming at home in the state as well.
Lorimer said plant biodiversity – meaning a wide variety of native plants – is crucial. Even more important, he said, is bio-proportionality, which he defined as having enough native species available to support native fauna. Achieving bio-proportionality, he says, will take a lot more than a few environmentally conscious home gardeners. All homeowners should be encouraged to downsize their lawns and prioritize ecological benefits, not just plant appeal. Beyond individual households, he added, when solar farms intersperse native plants among solar panels, and when municipalities, colleges, public gardens like Boston’s Arnold Arboretum and city parks States like New York’s Watkins Glen are switching to native plants, their actions are moving the world forward. closer to bio-proportionality.
Not all native plants are suitable for all locations, of course. Goldenrod, for example, is a very beneficial plant, but it’s a bit of a tyrant, growing quickly and taking over other plants’ space; many home gardeners consider it a weed. Lorimer suggested goldenrod primarily for fields, where it can spread without encroaching on other plants.
So the next time you are looking for new garden plants, don’t automatically look for peonies (originally from Asia), lavender (Mediterranean) or another equally beautiful foreign plant that has settled in our gardens. Instead, consider natives of your own ecoregion. “Native plants,” Lorimer said, “have the power to heal our landscapes, welcome wildlife to our gardens — and inspire us.”
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
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