What Is a Native Plant?

Throughout this blog and in many gardening books and websites, you’ll see references to native plants. It’s fairly easy to decipher the meaning of native, but let’s delve into what native means in gardening and why it’s increasingly important to choose native plants, especially where saving water is a concern.

Although the concept should be simple, you might find conflicting information about whether a particular plant you like is considered native. So I’d like to first briefly define the term. A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. Easy enough, but you can move a plant to a region at some point in time, and wait for it to adapt. Once it does, it’s still no more native to the region than I am to New Mexico, even though I have lived here more years than I plan to reveal.

Creeping Oregon grape native to New Mexico
The creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is actually a member of the Barberry family. Ours doesn’t spread much, but does need occasional shaping. We have never needed to water it.

For a plant to be native, humans have not intervened in its setting down roots. So a plant native to New Mexico has been here long before any gardener thought it might look great against a rock. And along the East coast, native plants were in place before the Europeans arrived on ships and began settling and farming. People also have not intervened or altered the plants; the plants have evolved to local conditions on their own over many plant generations. So the two main qualifiers are no people involvement and geography.

Why Aren’t All Plants Native?

Maybe to understand why you don’t walk down the sidewalk and see blocks of native plants, you have to grasp the concept and history of introduced and invasive plants. Introduced, or non-native, plants are brought by people to a location other than their native one. Not all non-native plants cause problems and become invasive, but they might be harder to grow, require more water, etc. And they can be introduced accidentally or brought intentionally. For example, I’ve tried to grow a plant native to Phoenix in Albuquerque just because I loved it and had delusions of grandeur or wanted to waste my money. No harm done to anyone or anything but my time.

yellow potentilla native
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), is known by many names, including potentilla. It’s a native to New Mexico and is an excellent low-water choice for erosion control and home garden color all summer. But cinquefoils can be invasive in Washington state.

An invasive plant, on the other hand, is a non-native brought to a new area that spreads and establishes itself rapidly and soon disrupts local ecosystems. An example in New Mexico is salt cedar. The salt cedar tree was introduced here and is sucking up water along streams and river banks, damaging important native trees such as cottonwoods. Most of the worst weeds we deal with in the Southwest first came here as ornamental plants.

Why Are Native Plants Important?

As opposed to invasive plants, native plants are balanced with and support local ecosystems. They don’t take all of the water that other plants and animals need to survive. They offer cover and food for animals and have adapted to typical climate and soil environments. If you think about it, a plant that survives at 9,000 feet and 120 miles from the nearest population center needs no help from people to make it through the cold winter or the hot summer. Hmmm, that plant should need little help from a gardener who lives nearby and in the same zone.

Mexican poppies in rock garden
Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica), also called California poppies, need no help re-seeding. And they love heat and poor dirt. Perfect for New Mexico.

It’s important to preserve native plants and important to include them in garden plans. When you select plants native to your area, you support the birds and critters that also roam your neighborhood or nearby wilderness areas, use less water and make gardening easier on yourself. Your plants will stay healthier because they already know what to expect! Look for help selecting native plants from local master gardener groups, native plant societies, coop extension services and local nurseries.

Xeric Garden Zones

If you’re planning a xeric garden for spring, and especially if you’re planning to take out a grass lawn and replace it with gravel and xeric plants, try planning your garden in recommended water zones.

First, let me jump on my gravel soap box. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it every chance I get: Ripping out grass and replacing it all with gravel represents many homeowners’ idea of xeric gardening. They soon find out that it’s not the best solution when a tree left in the middle of a gravel lawn dies and their home cooling bill skyrockets.

gravel yard
A typical gravel lawn misnamed as xeriscaping. Note the grass creeping up between the gravel, but that’s a future topic.

So let’s consider zones instead.

Arid Zone

You’ll want your most arid zone farthest from your house. Choose native plants that need the least amount of water, hopefully no supplemental watering at all. Here in New Mexico, that might include cacti, yuccas and many varieties of native flowering plants like Kniphofia uvaria (Red hot poker) or Berlandiera lyrata (Chocolate flower). It all depends on your landscape and personal preference.

Cacti-gravel
Cacti can add texture, height, blooms and plenty of interest to an arid zone.

Transition or Middle Zone

Your next zone can blend some lush, medium water areas with drier ones. Here’ you’ll use plants that take low and medium water. They only need water beyond nature’s supply about once a week or less. It’s a great spot for medium-water shrubs and trees, such as Spartium Junceum (Spanish broom) and various native oaks to provide summer shade, but let winter sun shine through.

This lawn is not a perfect depiction of the transition and mini-oasis, but it shows the arid zone with low-water plants, and a Bermuda lawn. Note the unhealthy cypress, planted years ago.
This lawn is not a perfect depiction of the transition and mini-oasis, but it shows the arid zone with low-water plants, and a Bermuda lawn.

Mini-oasis Zone

If you want to keep some grass, here’s your chance. Drought-tolerant grasses like Bermuda, Blue Grama, or Buffalograss need little watering but keep your lawn green and other plant roots cool. When used in moderation, and not to cover huge areas, they’re still low- to medium-water choices for this zone. Add some annual flowers in beds or containers up close to the house. By placing lusher plants and turf that need a little more water closer to your home, you help cool your house and take advantage of water runoff from the roof and downspouts.

xeric landscaping zones
A simple example of xeric water zones.

Of course, the drawing simplifies the concept. Landscapers who understand xeriscaping concepts know how to make your zones appealing and customized for your tastes and gardening ability. And by using microclimates, mulching, welling and other waterwise concepts we’ve discussed in other posts, you can push the limits in some of the zones. The basic concepts are to keep from overusing water and avoiding undermining the health of existing trees, along with the comfort and appearance of your home.

I Say Xeri and You Say Zero

OK, maybe you say and spell xeriscaping correctly, but you might be in the minority if you pronounce, much less understand, the term as it’s intended. I’ve heard people from all walks of life, including professional garden communicators, say the word with the big ZERO in it. The best example was the landscaping company that placed a flyer on my door last summer offering “zeroscape” services. You just can’t beg mispronunciation at that point.

What’s most disconcerting is that the landscaper likely got a few takers, because my Albuquerque neighborhood was ripe with homeowners switching from lawns to gravel-covered “zero” scapes. People misunderstand the fundamental concept of xeriscaping. “Xeros” is the Greek word for dry, not for barren, brown, desolate, nothingness, or zero.

I’ll talk more about what xeriscaping means in a future post, along with its absolutely positive side. For now, it feels so good to get that off my chest.