Michele Bakacs, Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Native plants are gaining popularity as we saw firsthand during Rutgers Day on Saturday, April 30. The Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County plant sale nearly sold out with more then 1000 native plants sold.
Native plants are those that occur historically in a certain ecosystem and have gotten there without help from humans. They have evolved as part of the ecosystem and support local food webs. New Jersey has over 2,000 native plants. We are lucky to live in an ecoregion with a diversity of native flowering plant species that, when properly selected, can provide color, habitat, and interest throughout the year. Whether you have a large yard or a few pots on a deck, there are opportunities to celebrate our native species that support pollinators and other wildlife.
At the Rutgers Day plant sale, we received a lot of questions from the public about native plants. Below is a summary of frequently asked questions.
Are these native plants perennial? Most of the native plants that can be purchased are perennial species, meaning they come back year after year. This is good news for your pocketbook as you won’t have to spend money on new plants every year.
Where can I put native plants? The possibilities are endless. Instead of buying annuals for pots and garden borders, think about incorporating flowering herbaceous perennials. Choose a variety of species with different bloom times throughout the year. Instead of buying annual fall mums, plant late flowering Asters or Goldenrods that flower from September into November. You’ll be supporting pollinators late into the season. If you look forward to crocuses coming up in the spring, consider planting early spring ephemerals like Virgina Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucularilla), or Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum). Use native plants as a groundcover, for example Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) or Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Use native shrubs as a hedge, for example Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium).
Can I grow them in a pot? Yes! For ideas about growing native plants in pots check out “Container Gardening with Native Plants” from the Missouri Botanical Garden or this “Balcony or patio DIY native plant garden” resource from NJ Audubon. Note that Missouri is outside of our ecoregion and not all their native plants will be native to New Jersey.
I have a lot of shade on my property. How do I know if they will grow well there? Many native plants will do well in the shade. Understanding the light, soil, and wetness requirements of the species is key to whether the plant will survive where you plant it. Native plant databases and lists are included at the end of this article so you can compare the species requirements to your site conditions. Remember “Right plant, right place!”.
I’m trying to attract butterflies to my yard. Which native plants would attract butterflies? This is the fun part! Seeing all the species that your native plants will attract. Many different species will attract butterflies. It’s important to have both adult nectar plants and caterpillar host plants. Check out the Penn State Cooperative Extension publication “Gardening for Butterflies” to learn about butterfly life cycles and how to attract butterflies.
I’ve heard native plants are low maintenance. Do I have to water these plants? Yes, initially any new planting will need to be watered when they are first getting established and are most vulnerable. Once the plants are established, they will need to be watered only during times of drought .
Where can I get more native plants? Why aren’t they sold at big box stores? A few native plants are available at big box stores. Many are native cultivars, meaning they’ve been selected for unique traits like brighter colored flowers. For example, shrubs in the Ericaceae family such as Rhododendron sp., herbaceous perennials like Phlox, Columbine (Aquilegia sp.), and Coneflower (Echinacea sp.), to name a few. Historically, there hasn’t been popular demand for native plants. The public is becoming more aware of their importance of supporting biodiversity and sustainable/ eco-friendly gardening is becoming more popular. The NJ Native Plant Society lists nurseries that sell a wider variety of native plants than what you’ll find at big box stores. Call ahead to confirm. In addition, many organizations have seasonal native plant sales.
Which native plants are toxic to dogs? The ASPCA has a comprehensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants for dogs. Note that this list does not focus on native plants, although some are listed.
Visit our Earth Day, Every Day website for on-demand recordings on incorporating native plants into your yard and propagating from seed, as well as removing invasive species.
Photos: Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Photo credit: Michele Bakacs
“Incorporating Native Plants in Your Residential Landscape“, Rutgers Cooperative Extension fact sheet FS1140
NJ Native Plant Society
Jersey Friendly Yards Native Plant Database
Xerces Society Pollinator Friendly Native Plants List
National Wildlife Foundation Native Plant Finder