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COLUMN: Add native plants to your garden

Bruce H. Mero, Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County
Posted 2/5/23

It started a week before Christmas, the gardening catalogs in our mailbox. The initial trickle is now a flow with several coming daily.

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COLUMN: Add native plants to your garden


It started a week before Christmas, the gardening catalogs in our mailbox. The initial trickle is now a flow with several coming daily. It takes time to scan them.

One thing I have noticed with most of the colorful arrivals is that exotic plants are nearly always featured worldwide. Those that historically come from this area, native plants, are seldom offered, if at all. That, in this author’s opinion, is a shame.

There is tremendous value in using native plants in your gardens. I hope to entice you to consider using natives in your home landscape as you peruse those catalogs arriving in your mail. You might not find many native plants in the garden catalogs; you may have to seek them out if you are genuinely interested. However, you will discover that these plants require less tending, less watering and fertilizing and have much less winter kill than their exotic cousins. Plants native to this region have evolved to survive our frigid winters, cold and wet springs and hot, dry summers.

So, what is a native plant? As described by botanists, a native plant is a species that naturally occurred in an area, the Northeast United States in this instance, prior to European settlement and the introduction of non-native plant materials. Those same botanists have identified more than 2,000 species of plants that are considered native to this region.

What is so special about native plants? Since the retreat of the remaining glaciers from the last Ice Age, plant species have emerged, adapting and genitally evolving over this time to thrive here. These species find our varying soil types and climate conditions favorable. Native plants require a minimum of care since they have thrived over the millennia without human intervention.

While these plants have evolved, so too have birds local to our area, adapted to take food and shelter from those plants. Approximately 90% of North American terrestrial birds rear their young on insects and caterpillars, according to the National Audubon Society. Those bugs have evolved eating native plants over the millennia; few actually find the exotic, non-native plants sold in those colorful gardening catalogs, much to their liking. Non-native landscapes have been designated as “food deserts” by hard-core native plant aficionados.

Pollinators have a particular liking to native plants. Like many species, bees and bumblebees, butterflies and moths, bats, humming-birds and other species are opportunists and will seek nectar and pollen from flowers wherever it is available, including non-natives. It is a fact, however, that most all pollinators have evolved to forage native plants as their primary source of food.

Some insects have developed an exclusive symbiosis with native plant materials and will use no others, monarch butterflies for example. These colorful fliers will use only native milkweeds and no other plants upon which to lay their eggs to feed their caterpillars. The milkweeds also benefit as the monarchs (and other butterflies) seek the nectar from the fragrant flowers and distribute milkweed pollen sticking to hairs on their legs to other of the species as a fertilization mechanism.

Many populations of our native plants are diminishing as habitat loss and invasive species take a toll. Of the 2,000 plants native to this region, over 750 are in trouble and now protected by conservation law in New York. Using native plants in your gardens (reputably propagated, not collected in the wild), will help to reverse this trend.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County answers home and garden questions which can be emailed to or call 315-736-3394, press 1 and ext. 333. Leave your question, name and phone number. Questions are answered weekdays, 8 a.m to 4 p.m. Also, visit our website at or phone 315-736-3394, press 1 and then ext.100.


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