By Jan Cashman • Posted on May, 18th 2011
What is a native or indigenous plant?
One definition is “a plant that occurs naturally in a particular area of the U.S., that was here before the Europeans came.” The word endemic means a plant that grows in one place and nowhere else. Endemic plants and animals are most often found on isolated islands like Madagascar, New Zealand, or Hawaii, such as certain species of orchids. There are some plants endemic to only one area of the United States.
In addition to true native plants, many of the perennial flowers we sell are selections (cultivars) or hybrids of native plants. Most of the time, these selections and hybrids are hardy and drought resistant, just like the native plant from which they were bred, but have larger, more colorful, longer lasting flowers, more compact shape, or other improvements. Sometimes, it happens that some hardiness is lost in breeding, so check the recommended hardiness zone when purchasing a new selection.
Why plant natives?
They are adapted to our climate. And, many require less water than plants introduced from other parts of the U.S. or the world. Natives are less invasive. (An extreme example of invasiveness of a non-native plant is the very invasive spotted napweed, which was introduced by accident years ago in contaminated seed from Eastern Europe.) Native plants make good habitat for birds and wild animals because these are the plants these creatures are used to. Another reason to plant rare natives is help keep the species from dying out.
Native perennial flowers can be started from seed or potted plants. Some, such as blue flax, yarrow, and blanket flower, are easy to start from seed. Other native perennials take longer to get established, and are easier started from small potted plants. Sometimes, it can take 2 or 3 years for natives to be established in your garden.
What are some native species that I could grow in my garden?
Some perennials indigenous to Southwestern Montana have familiar names like Aster, Monarda, Liatris, Geranium, Jacob’s ladder, Larkspur, Monkshood, Pasqueflower, Primrose, and Sunflower. I have referenced the Valley of the Flowers chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society’s web site for this article. It is easy-to-read, with lots of information, and lists 100 native wildflowers, mostly perennial, plus a long list of native grasses, trees, shrubs, and wetland plants. This can be found at mtnativeplants.org and click on “Native Plant Landscaping in our area”.
Bitterroot is the state flower of Montana. This small (3”) plant is found on dry sites in rocky, poor soil. The Shoshone and Flathead Indians thought the root had medicinal purposes. It has delicate, pink, spring flowers. The small scale of this plant makes it good for rock gardens, as long as they have well-drained soil. Bitterroot goes dormant after flowering, so mark its spot.
Another native plant which was eaten by the Blackfoot Indians as a treat is Pincushion cactus, found in the dry areas of the state. This tiny cactus would work well in a small rock garden you don’t plan to water much.
Two native columbines are Yellow (Aquilegia flavescens) and Colorado (A. caerulea), which has blue and white flowers. They reseed readily, and thrive in partially shady areas. Columbines flower for an extended period in late spring/early summer and make an interesting, long-lasting cut flower.
The native yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has white flowers and aggressively reseeds itself. It can easily become invasive, so plant it in an area where it can be allowed to spread. Some of the newer, more colorful yarrow hybrids, like yellow Moonshine, are not as invasive as the native. Yarrow flowers are excellent for drying, when picked in full bloom, and last a long time in a cut flower arrangement.
Penstemons are a popular perennial, but penstemon species found in garden centers tend to be nonnatives. Native penstemons, such as P. procerus, bloom in the summer in shades of blue. Penstemons attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
The delicate flowers of blue flax will fill a meadow with wedgewood-blue color in June. Easy to grow from seed or potted plants, blue flax will reseed itself.
The big sagebrush we see growing in sunny, drier areas can be woody and irregular, but a couple of other native plants in the same genus, Artemisia, have silvery, aromatic foliage and are more evenly shaped. Fringed sage, also called wormwood (Artemisia frigida), is a small mounding plant with a fuzzy texture. Silver sage (Artemisia cana) gets to 3 to 4 feet in height and width. Neither needs much, if any, additional water besides what nature gives. The silver-green foliage blends well with other, more colorful but drought-tolerant perennials.
Kinnickinick, pussy toes, alpine strawberries are all natives that make great, drought tolerant ground covers.
Planting natives can naturally blend your home with the native landscape around it. Adults — and children — will bend down to observe the delicate subtlety of the indigenous plants’ flowers and leaves. So make these interesting, low-care, low-water plants part of your landscape!