Q: My neighbor recently returned from the plant sale at the Mobile Botanical Gardens really excited about a carful of “native plants” she’d purchased and was looking forward to adding them to her landscaping. What is a “native plant” and why would I want to include them in my yard?

A: Good question! Many people think of “natives” as weeds, if they think about them at all! However, picture the wonderful shade around wooded home sites (oaks, hickories, pines, magnolias), the lovely meadows in older vacant lots, the gorgeous trees and shrubs now flowering in our woodlands (redbud, Grancy graybeard, honeysuckle, azalea, dogwood, silverbells) and the beautiful wildflowers along unmowed roadsides and ditches (asters, coneflowers, salvia, hibiscus). Most are Alabama natives and as lovely and useful as any horticultural varieties you might find in a local garden center or the outdoor section of any large national chain store.

A “native plant” is any herb, grass, shrub or tree that has adapted over thousands of years to specific regional and local site conditions and grows well without our intervention or cultivation. Purists restrict their definition to those plants occurring here before the arrival and effects of European expansion into the New World. By the way, those Europeans quickly began to recognize the beauty and value of our American species and an early profitable trade developed exporting our natives for cultivation in European gardens and parks.

In addition to the obvious aesthetic beauty of native species, a number of characteristics make them attractive landscape options for the home gardener.

Natives are adapted to environmental conditions of temperature, rainfall patterns, light, soils and moisture/drought. They are naturally hardier and may require less care and attention, such as reduced watering and fertilizing. They may save you time and money. Of course it is important to know something about the specific natural growing conditions of the natives you want to grow. A wetland plant won’t do well on the beaches and dunes of your vacation home and the wildflowers of woodlands probably won’t really like a yard with full sun.

Native plants are adapted to the biological conditions in their normal setting, often being more resistant to diseases, harmful insects, herbivores such as deer, and weedy competitors than horticultural varieties. Therefore, you may be able to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides. This is good for the environment, the health of you and your pets, and can also save you money.

Many natives are long-lived, perennials (come back from roots every year) or reseed themselves, reducing the need for continually planting and replanting. Instead, you may only have to remove last year’s dead leaves and branches, thin new seedlings or divide clumps as they become too dense. Your friends and neighbors will appreciate those free “pass along” plants you no longer have room for!

By careful species selection, native plantings can be designed for a continuous display of flowering, summer shade and winter sun warming (deciduous trees and shrubs), and fall color (sassafras, maples, sweetgum). They can be easily incorporated into landscape designs that mix and blend native and non-native species or in designs seeking to duplicate a natural plant community.

But that’s just half the story. In addition to what they look like and how they please us, native plants and their combined habitats have important value to native fauna — birds, insects, wildlife and critical pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Many native insects have co-evolved with native plants to be specifically dependent upon one another (for example, monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed plants).

You may find it difficult to locate good sources for your native plant needs. More and more, the increased awareness of the value of natives has increased demand for them but growers and retailers may still have limited inventories. There are a few smaller native plant nurseries scattered around Alabama. Let your local garden center or retail nursery know you want to see greater availability and variety of native species.

Also, annual plant sales at the Mobile Botanical Gardens (March and October), Baldwin County Master Gardeners (April) and the Weeks Bay National Estuary Research Reserve in Baldwin County (October) offer high quality and good selections to meet most of your needs. The seasonal marketplace at the Mobile Botanical Gardens (April through June) often has a few natives for sale.

Plants can be purchased from mail order and online sources but you should only order from sources within our nearby states, and only species native to Alabama. Climates and soils vary geographically and the same species may exhibit very different success in different locations. For instance, the beautiful wild mountain laurels of the Smoky Mountains often fail if planted here but our local Gulf Coast plants (the very same species) will do quite well in your yard. They seem to be happier in their familiar neighborhood and have different genes for survival and success in different locations.

When purchasing native plants, confirm they have been nursery-propagated by seeds, cuttings or divisions and are not wild-harvested. Many native species have become rare or extinct because of imprudent overharvesting for retail sales.

Don’t be tempted to dig your own native plants from wild habitats. Not only will they probably struggle to survive transplanting, but increasingly disturbed and reduced natural communities don’t need our additional traumatic insults to their survival. Additionally, there are several Alabama state laws and penalties for entering someone else’s property without permission and digging, picking, cutting or mutilating trees, shrubs or plants.

For a listing of some of Alabama’s outstanding native plants, you may want to consult the publications ANR-0623 (“Wildflowers in Alabama Landscapes”) and ANR-0905 (“A Key to Common Native Trees of Alabama”) at www.aces.edu. Other good starting points include “Native Plant Finder” (select Alabama) at www.enature.com/native~invasive and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at www.wildflower.org.

UPCOMING: (free and open to the public)
When: May 5, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
What: “Whole Foods: Local Food Sourcing and Sustainable Living” by Whole Foods representative

Master Gardener Helpline: Call 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.

Regional Agent Ellen Huckabay’s column in the May 12 Lagniappe will cover the particulars of the Master Gardener Course, which begins on Wednesday, Aug. 10.  Here’s a preview:
Deadline to apply: June 8
Classes: Aug. 10 through Nov. 16, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
For more information: Call Diane at 251-574-8445 or email to jda0002@aces.edu.

What: Farm to Table Event presented by Alabama Cooperative Extension System
When: Monday, June 6, 6-8 p.m.
Where: Sessions Farm Market (Grand Bay)
Cost: $60 per person  
Reservations required by May 27.