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The Beauty of Planting Native

by Garden Writer

Next in our Guest Garden Writer Series comes a blog on native plants from Kristin Gembara, a certified Master Gardener from Illinois (Zone 4/5). We hope you enjoy her informative article and photos of her garden!

As a Master Gardener, I volunteer at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. This past year, I was asked this question by a curious gardener:
“If I want to plant Native, should I get rid of the other plants that are not native?” 
“Not if they are naturalized and doing well,” I answer. 
“But how can we grow native plants if there are plants mixed in from other countries?” She asked.

Well, let’s examine the difference in the terms that are used, as we try to understand the benefits of planting native plants.

Knowing the difference between native and non-native plants can be thorny.  Do we actually mean native to our continent or our county? Do we mean native to Illinois or to our region?  A native plant is a phrase used to describe a plant's life in a particular geographic location. Vegetation is considered native if it was present before Europeans settled the area.  There is plenty of research on the benefits of planting native, as listed above. Many sustainable nurseries now grow and sell native Illinois/Midwestern plants, and love to teach about the different types of native plants and their benefits.  Naturalization is a word in the plant world that people are confusing with “native.” I want to share two examples of the naturalization of plants. 


The first, are shrubs: Lilacs, Syringa vulgaris and Forsythia, Forsythia intermedia.  Both plants were brought to the U.S as ornamentals and do quite well here.  Lilacs are originally from the Balkan Peninsula of Southern Europe, and Forsythia is originally from the Far East.  They are not native to our region or our continent, but they have not caused problems either. They have naturalized.   

My second example is Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea. This plant was also introduced as an ornamental ground cover and has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes.  This is the plant that we all, now love to hate. This plant has also been naturalized but is also invasive. 

So let’s clarify the term invasive.  What makes a plant invasive?  According to Mr. Galen Gates, a horticulturist and botanist, who I had the pleasure studying under at College of DuPage, stated, “a plant that upsets by dominating an area is considered invasive.” If you introduce a new species to a setting, and it spreads and damages the surrounding ecosystem, this is invasive. In the case of Lilacs and Forsythia, they behaved themselves after their formal introductions in the 18th century. Creeping Charlie became the wild child of ornamentals, which still has folks scratching their heads wondering why it was introduced in the first place.  The examples I used of Lilacs / Forsythia and Creeping Charlie have become naturalized, but creeping Charlie has become invasive.  Creeping Charlie grows aggressively in places people do not want it and disturbs the ecology with its invasive growth patterns, becoming a weed.

Try planting a native Illinois plant or two this spring and see what happens. When thinking about plants for your garden this growing season, don’t just pick one because it looks good at the store. Pick a plant that has a job and works with your sustainable beliefs.  You don’t have to tear out everything to “go native.”  Just make sure that you have the right plants in the right place and you know that there is a purpose to your plantings. In Brookfield Illinois, I look forward to the palette of yellow and lavender that Forsythias and Lilac shrubs share with us, after a long winter sleep. These colors remind us that warmer days are ahead and new growth will flourish.  This growth is not just in your outside garden, but in your garden knowledge as well.

Happy spring!

tinkerbell lilac