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Native Gardening

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  • Purple Coneflower
  • Milkweed with Monarch Butterfly
  • Black-Eyed Susan
Here at the Nature Museum, we use native plants extensively in our exterior landscaping. The use of natives is growing in popularity everywhere, and for good reason. Not only are natives often beautiful and durable, they provide tangible benefits for local wildlife. We get many questions from visitors on this topic.  We've tried to answer some of the more common questions here.

Q:  What are native plants?

A: Native plants are those species which had been growing wild in our area at the time when scientists first began observing and cataloging them. These plants evolved in conjunction with local animal life, forming a complex network of interdependence. Native plant species form the foundations of local ecosystems such as the tallgrass prairie.

Q:  Are native plants easier to grow?

A:  Catalogs and guidebooks often tout low maintenance as a benefit of gardening with native plants.  While it’s true that native plants are adapted to our yearly temperature and precipitation regimes, it is an over-generalization to say they are always easier to grow than non-natives. The true secret to low maintenance gardening is matching the plants you are growing to the specific conditions you are growing them in. For example, native Swamp Milkweed requires very little care if sited in full sun with moist soil.  Plant it on a sandy slope, and it will require near-daily watering in the summer. The old mantra holds true for all plants, native and non-native: Right plant, right place. It’s worth noting that there is one plant virtually all homeowners grow extensively that is rather poorly suited to our environment – lawn grass.  Replacing lawns with properly selected native plants will reduce maintenance, beautify, and benefit local wildlife.

Q:  How does native plant gardening help the environment?

A:  The environmental benefits of gardening increase substantially when natives are used. This is because local bird and insect species are adapted to make use of native plants for food and shelter. For example, many species of insects rely exclusively on a single native plant species for food. The plants provide food for bugs; bugs are food for songbirds; songbirds are food for hawks, snakes, etc. Simply put, the chain of life in local ecosystems begins with native plants.

Q:  What are some of the best native plants for Chicagoland gardens?

A:  Some of the plants we have had the most success with, right here in the heart of Chicago, include:

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis)
Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Wild White Indigo (Baptisia leucantha)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpuream)
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)
Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)

Look for varieties that are as close to the wild type as possible.  Although we might find a white Purple Coneflower intriguing, a butterfly may not recognize it as a food source.

Q: What are the best sources for native plants?

A:  Garden centers and nurseries are increasingly catering to customers who choose native plants.  There are also many sources online.  It’s a good idea to do a little research of your own before you begin, however, because retailers sometimes define “native” very loosely. A good place to start seeking information is your local native plant society.     

 
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