Why the Next Big Gardening Trend Is Taking a Cue from Local Biodiversity

Before you buy a tropical tree, here's why native plants are a better option.

May 19, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

Planting a tree and seeing it grow and thrive is one of the most long-lasting and fulfilling gardening experiences. I feel that way about the gingko in our front yard, but when it comes to wildlife value, a gingko is almost like having a plastic tree in your yard—it has zero value to the little critters that make nature work. A gingko attracts no caterpillars at all (which are essential for birds to raise their young), but a native oak, on the other hand, supports more than 550 species of caterpillars. According to Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and a leading voice in the movement to plant more natives, a single pair of chickadees needs 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch of young.

Unfortunately, most of the plants sold by nurseries today are not wildlife-friendly natives but introduced from Asia and Europe, often decades and centuries ago. The good news is, that over the past two decades the movement for planting natives has been gaining traction. More nurseries are offering native plants and some nurseries specialize only in natives. Home gardeners and landscape architects have become more aware that say, the Bradford pear, a very popular ornamental pear tree, might not be the best choice.

Here are the scientific reasons why native plants are decidedly better than non-natives: Natives support biodiversity and wildlife by providing food, shelter, and breeding locations. Natives are also much better adapted to the local climate and are less prone to diseases. Often, non-native plant species spread quickly and become invasive, choking out native vegetation.

Definitely do your research to find out which plants and trees are native to your area, and you’ll be doing your part to support biodiversity—no matter how small your yard or patio.

"Native" is defined by location

What a native plant is depends very much on where you live. While the Eastern Redbud, the state tree of Oklahoma, has a large geographical range from Pennsylvania to Texas, other native trees are more confined to a certain region, such as the Pacific Dogwood which thrives only on the Pacific coast.

To find out what’s native in your area, seek out your local native plant nurseries, which are popping up in rapidly growing numbers. Or, enter your ZIP code in the Native Plant Finder, which will give you a long list of native plants, from flowers and grasses to trees and shrubs. Another great resource are the native plant societies found in many states; they often have Facebook groups where you can ask questions and meet a lot of highly knowledgeable native plant aficionados.

Choose Native Alternatives

When you’re out shopping for a tree—or for any other ornamental plant, for that matter—look for native alternatives.

Here’s a sample “plant this not that” list for popular trees and shrubs (and again, which alternative is best depends on your location):

Going Native Is a Process

If you take inventory of your yard, you might realize that most of your plants are introduced, non-native species. Don’t worry—no one expects you to rip out all the plants. Instead, when you replace a plant that died from old age or disease and you need to fill a bare spot, plant natives. Of course, if you’re moving into a new home and starting landscaping from scratch, planting lots of natives is easy. Aside from the beauty of the plants, you’ll be rewarded with an increased number of birds and wildlife, helping our planet be a little more in balance.

Starting with a little is better than nothing. Slowly, plant by plant, your yard or patio can become a wildlife haven—or, as Dough Tallamy calls it, a Homegrown National Park, which is also the name of his latest campaign. Here you can register your location, how many native plants you have already, and what your goal is.

Have you considered planting more native plants in your garden? Tell us which ones and why, below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • lisahut
  • Smaug
  • Nadia Hassani
    Nadia Hassani
Writer, editor, and translator


lisahut May 22, 2021
A native plant is one that was in the area historically before European settlement. All the flora and fauna of a particular area have evolved over millennium to work in biological concert, which is why our native plants are so critical. To help sort out what plants existed historically in your area, check out the excellent reference maps
Wonderful article with great information and explanations. Many thanks!
Smaug May 22, 2021
Which merely changes the question to "what is the area". For instance, the city of Berkeley where I learned gardening has at least three very distinct habitat zones. Where I live currently, if I limit my garden to what would grow naturally on my block I'm left with a few native grasses and scrub oaks. This makes for a pretty boring garden and isn't awfully supportive of wildlife- the trees are too spaced out for squirrels to take advantage of all those acorns, there are no plants that give significant support to insects or birds (other than the invasive non-native wild turkeys, who like acorns), no insects to support lizards, nothing for deer but a few oak shoots for a week or two in spring if any seedlings actually make it that far. A pretty bleak sort of garden, and not really supporting much but roof rats and the owls that eat them.
Nadia H. May 23, 2021
@lisahut: Glad you found the article useful and thanks for sharing the link to The Biota of North America Program, which was new to me. You have to dig around a bit, it's a really a resource for plant nerds but I learned that horseweed (Erigeron canadensis) ranks first on the list of the 100 most thoroughly distributed species. I have plenty of that in my yard and hey, it's a native so I will look at it with friendlier eyes from now on!
Smaug May 19, 2021
So what's a native? "Native" planting has long been a big thing in California, but being a native of California isn't much more specific than being a native of the world. Most California natives, to be sure, are adapted to low rainfall in the winter, but not by any means all, and beyond that the state has alpine habitats, coastal habitats, desert habitats, woodland habitats, pretty much anything but tundra. So saying a plant is a "California native" really doesn't tell you anything about its suitability in a certain spot. Much of the state has a Mediterranean climate with maritime influence and is beautifully suited to plants from similar climates, such as southern Europe and South Africa- in fact coastal California has some of the finest climates for general horticulture in the world. And of course most food crops, as well as many of the best garden plants, are natives of breeders' greenhouses. I make a point of planting natives of the state where they are suitable- it's one point in favor of a plant, but many non native plants are very supportive of local wildlife- the hummingbirds don't seem to mind that my fuchsias are from another continent, and the #%&! deer don't seem to care that the roses are hybrids. Caterpillars are notoriously limited in what they feed on, and many people garden specifically for butterflies, but most insects are by no means that picky. One big problem, at least in this state, is that few people actually garden anymore- most are content to have synthetic landscapes "installed" and cared for by unskilled laborers. The designers, or their computer programs, select plants largely on negative grounds, such as deer won't eat it, doesn't need much water, doesn't need deadheading etc., so most of the planting in residential areas is sterile (not to mention boring) and doesn't support much of anything. I would say that being "native" (if you can figure out what that means) would be one factor in choosing a plant but shouldn't be taken as a be all/end all. I use California as an example because that's where I garden, and I don't suppose many places have quite the size or variety of this state, but few are so uniform that you can simply say "Iowa natives" or "Southeast natives" and have it mean much.