What Are Natives, Why Use More of Them & How to Start


Julie Siegel is a collaborator and contributor to City Grange. This is part 2 of a series on native plants, written by Julie Siegel. Read part 1, here. - LaManda


When it comes to plants, many people use the word, “native.” We may assume that we all mean the same thing. Yet, different people can mean different things. So, here I will give you some ideas about what a native is and why I believe it is desirable for us to use more of them.

Generally, a native plant is one that grew in the U.S. before the country was colonized. Some desirable traits of these types of native plants stem from them living in local communities. Plants lived with other plants that were adapted to their particular ecosystem. Natives thrived according to different conditions of light, water, and soil and how they evolved in a community response. In the Chicago area, there were varying ecosystems, like Prairie, Savanna and Woodland. Prairie plants evolved in full sun & clay soil to where the plants had to have deep roots to survive flood, drought and fires. A different environment was an Oak Savanna where plants adapted to survive in tandem with dappled shade and the extensive root systems of the trees plus fires. Woodlands produced trees that could tolerate shade and root competition in soils fertilized by long-term leaf-decomposition. All of these plants evolved in ecosystems of animals and insects that helped perpetuate plant species. Pollination was vital and types varied.

Our native plants evolved to survive local seasonal conditions. For example, our last frost date in Chicago is around the end of May! That is why, even with Climate Change making weather generally warmer and more extreme, most natives don’t really get going until June. But, we, as consumers, have been trained to expect plants to put on a show earlier. And, as a culture, we have generally lost our connection with nature. So that means, to enjoy natives, we have the opportunity to re-educate ourselves to appreciate more of a slower and subtle cycle. Doing that can put us more in touch with deeper rhythms and with others who appreciate these values.

Today, our gardens are a far cry from their original circumstances. Not only are most of the native ecosystems endangered, but as well, growing conditions in the city and suburbs are man-made environments. We need to factor in these differences when we select plants. While the circumstances may have changed, using natives still fortifies our ecosystems. Once established, natives usually require fewer resources and less attention. That results in fewer chemicals, more time and better investment financially and emotionally. 

So what are the steps to assessing what you need to grow natives? First, you need to honestly assess what your growing conditions are. Next, you want to find a good source with locally grown natives that have been curated by knowledgeable plants people. Then you match up their knowledge with your space and time.

Here are specific factors you can integrate for improved success with natives. In our region, the limestone bedrock means we have high alkaline soil and we water with the same high pH. Changing the pH is practically impossible, so accept it & use plants like natives that can tolerate it.  Amend your soil to suit what you are growing only to the degree that you are feeding the soil or improving the soil structure in a sustainable way. Group plants with similar thirst. Compost almost always helps break up the soil to provide more space for plants to breathe & grow roots. Time your light conditions to get an accurate assessment. Most perennials can survive with more light, but not with less. Just as with light, most natives can get by with less care, but will thrive with more. Again, honestly assessing how much time you are likely to devote to your garden under realistic, not ideal circumstances, will reward your efforts. Just as practicing “reality checks” strengthens all parts of our life, individually and in community.