Why Native Plants Make All the Difference

“Put things where they go” is a basic notion within permaculture, a study that looks at how nature solves problems. Permaculture explores how to work with nature rather than against it, and upholds environmental health as interconnected with human health. As our population has grown exponentially over the past several decades, and climate change looms heavier with many historic natural disasters and species driven to extinction, the implications can be overwhelming. One easy, rewarding way to take proactive action is through native plants, whether by cultivating them in a yard or container garden, or volunteering at a local park.

I was introduced to native plants through the latter effort. Previously, I could identify some plants, but might also pass through my surroundings without really seeing the distinctions among various plant matter, or knowing whether a plant belonged to the region and benefitted it accordingly. Through volunteering with California State Parks Foundation, I learned that native plants are what is present in a landscape without human impact. A common definition in the U.S. is “plants that were here before the Europeans arrived.”

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White sage (Salvia apiana), one of the most iconic California native plants, has a history of use in many medicinal and spiritual applications by the Tongva people.
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Purple sage has multiple varieties native to California and many culinary and medicinal applications, such as teas that help to relieve congestion and aid digestion.

These native plants co-evolved with local insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals over thousands, if not millions of years, forming the foundation of the food chain. For instance, the California sister butterfly only lays its eggs on oaks (genus Quercus), whose leaves provide food for the larvae. Hummingbirds line their nests with fuzz from the leaves of Western sycamore trees. Conversely, invasive plants, introduced from other places via human travel, provide little food or habitat.

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Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the Verdugo Mountains.

Besides creating sterile environments for local wildlife, invasive plants compete with native species for resources like water and sunlight, and can even change soil chemistry. Therein lies the problem with the idea of “let nature take its course.” Once introduced, invasive plants can continuously degrade fragile ecosystems, but human intervention can help to restore native habitat.

California is special due to its biodiversity, or sheer scale of the variety of species that call it home (including its variety of humans!) The state has roughly 6,500 native plants, of which approximately one-third are endemic – found nowhere else on earth (at least not by natural occurrence). By contrast, some midwestern states are home to fewer than 1,500 native plant species. California is part of the Mediterranean climate zone, which covers 2% of the earth, yet accounts for 20% of known plant species globally.

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Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), captured in the winter with its signature red berries (vs. white flowers in the summer). The berries are adored by birds, and were allegedly mistaken for holly by European settlers, leading to the name Hollywood!

Mediterranean climates typically host hot, dry summers and wet winters. While spring is planting season in other climates, fall is the best time for Californians to plant, to leverage subsequent winter rains. Beyond just tolerating drought, native plants may go dormant during the summer months, with adaptations like curling their leaves under to minimize their surface area exposed to the intense sun. While this may not suit an English garden aesthetic, it’s a brilliant mechanism for these plants to survive and thrive as they evolve throughout the seasons.

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Coyote mint (Monardella villosa), one of my favorite California natives due to its delicious, almost tropical fragrance, alongside some dry California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) in the month of June at Rio de Los Angeles State Park.

Besides being beautiful (more or less classically so depending on the season) and low-maintenance, and supporting pollinators, native plants bring a variety of other benefits. Sunland’s nonprofit native plant nursery Theodore Payne chronicles an excellent list.

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Another shot of fragrant coyote mint, visited by a western tiger swallowtail butterfly.

One idea I find poignant is that despite the dense, sprawling development in my hometown of Los Angeles, even cultivated patches of native plants can provide “stepping stones” for animals to move throughout the city. The more species of wildlife that can move around, the greater variety and number of species an area can sustain. This species richness, or biodiversity, forms the basis of a sustainable food web.

In the attempt to move freely, some animals have met their ends on Los Angeles freeways. LA’s most famous mountain lion, P-22, is believed to have successfully crossed the 405 and 101 freeways to find a new home within Griffith Park. At eight square miles, this habitat is a tiny fraction of the 100 square miles that male mountain lions typically require. In surviving there for more than seven years to date, his adaptability validates the food web that has sustained him, from native plants on up to racoons and deer. Chances are sadly slim that P-22 would ever encounter a mate and be able to reproduce. However, his story has helped spur plans to build the world’s largest wildlife crossing.

Native plants remind us that nature is more often about cooperation than survival of the fittest. For instance, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of vascular plant roots to take in more nutrients, while the plants feed sugars and carbohydrates back to the fungi. This is one common example of many mutualistic ecological interactions. Collaboration yields strength, and defines the sustainability of an ecosystem.

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California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), another favorite of birds and butterflies. The flowers go from lighter colors in spring to a rusty color in late autumn.
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Sugar bush (Rhus ovata), a California native shrub good for hillside stabilization and erosion control, growing huge and happy in the Verdugo Mountains.

To start incorporating native plants into your own space, it helps to look at any wild spaces in your neighborhood to see what grows. Working with the existing conditions, rather than trying to mold the conditions to personal preference, creates a ripple effect outward of harmony and ecosystem health.

This approach also embraces the distinct character of our neighborhoods – something to be explored and celebrated. When we default to exotic plants from chain nurseries throughout the U.S., we may meet a certain aesthetic, but make a barren impact upon the local ecosystem, and create unnaturally homogenous landscapes across climate zones. Native plants reflect the inherent differences and variety that make places and spaces interesting.

For additional learning and inspiration, the Audubon native plant database enables searching by zip code to discover plants that belong to the birds and bees in your area. Once you’re ready to weed, plant, mulch, water and repeat, the below infographic shares best practices for California native plants.

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2 Comments

  1. Maryanne

    Thank you, Michelle, for sharing with the world another brilliant article filled with fascinating information I never learned in school !!

    As always, your research is meticulous, educational, and helpful for those who wish to incorporate native plants into their own environment.

    Your article would surely be a valuable asset published in ‘National Geographic’ & other like – minded periodicals.

    Loved the info on how animals adjust to the environment and trek miles to make a home!

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