Native Plants, Natural Resources

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A healthy and sustainable ecosystem means an empowered Earth resulting in hale and hearty people. Native plants have co-evolved with other species through natural ecological conditions and processes. They are foundational to a complex web of biological diversity and interactions that we receive many benefits from today. North Carolina can lay claim to being one of the most ecologically diverse states in the southeast with over 4000 native species of plants.

Plants have many functions. They protect soil from erosion, support soil microbes, and they help cycle nutrients and water. But all plants are not created equal. In addition to fulfilling all basic plant roles, native plants also restore the character and heritage of the land while placing fewer demands on resources by being able to withstand regional weather extremes. Native plants also provide food and shelter for native wildlife.

According to the EPA and the US Geological Survey, Dept. of the Interior Map of Ecological Regions of North America,  our area straddles the areas designated as 8.3.4 Piedmont and 8.3.5 Southeastern Plains. Native plants occur within natural communities made up of distinct populations of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi naturally associated with each other and their physical environment. Within NC, 30 natural communities have been identified that shape that community. A plant’s inclusion in a natural community is not exclusive; many native plant species are components of several natural communities, so many species can adapt well to multiple areas.

Knowing the natural communities within a region helps gardeners identify plants that will thrive in that region’s landscapes, and select a given plant for a suitable site. The Guide to the Natural Communities of North Carolina, Fourth Approximation, written by Michael Schafale and available from the NC Natural Heritage Program, is one resource gardeners can use to learn about the natural communities in their region.

While the diversity in our state is impressive, present-day practices, habitat changes and the introduction and subsequent “escape” of non-native plants are making an impact many of us may not be aware of. One in seven plant species in the state is rare — totaling over 700 species, and 162 of these species are threatened or endangered in North Carolina.

A small percentage of plants introduced to our state have become exceptionally robust competitors that end up taking over and out reproducing our native plant Image of flowersspecies. Because they did not co- evolve locally, invasive species lack the natural enemies that limit their spread in their own native habitat, resulting in uncontrolled population growth that can threaten the health of humans, livestock, wildlife, and ecosystems. You are likely to have spotted a few of these culprits in your daily travels:  Kudzu, Chinese privet, Asian wisterias, and English Ivy just to name a few.

The many benefits from native plant species indicates their value use in our landscapes as well as the need for their conservation and protection in the wild. A well-informed and balanced approach to designing our gardens and landscapes is key. Native doesn’t mean a plant is adapted to all landscapes/sites, or that it is well behaved, long lived or easy care/low maintenance. It is important to know before you grow.

One of the most important things gardeners can do to protect local ecosystems is to identify and remove invasive plants from their property,  avoid planting species that have a high potential to become invasive and choose plants – native or otherwise – that work for your site and for your life. To learn how to identify native plants (and some invasive plants) in our area, come join us on March 14, 2020, for a Native Plant ID and Photography tour at San Lee Park with Naturalist Jimmy Randolph. This program is free, but space is limited, so please register online or call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center at 919-775-5624 by March 11.

Minda Daughtry is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.