Native Plants for Beginners

Welcome to Wild Ones Southern Kentucky Chapter! We’re glad you’re here!

If you’re new to native plants and want to learn more about them, we’ve compiled some information to get you started.

What is a native plant?

The general definition of a native plant is one that has evolved and occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, and habitat without human introduction. Generally we think of native plants as those that were here before European contact.

Why are native plants important?

Native plants are the foundation of the food web. They not only feed insects and animals but also give them a place to live. Many species rely on native plants to complete their lifecycle. Think of the monarch butterfly that must have milkweed plants to survive. Milkweed plants are the only plants the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly can consume–no other plant will do. Monarch butterflies are milkweed specialists and if there are no milkweeds, there are no monarch butterflies. This is only one example of the necessity of native plants in our environment. Nearly every butterfly and moth species requires specific native plants on which to lay their eggs and feed their caterpillars.

Many native bees are also specialists and require the pollen from specific native flowers to feed their young. If these native flowers go extinct, so will the bees that require their pollen.

Our ecosystem is built on a foundation of native plants. When that foundation erodes, negative impacts in the environment occur. Using native plants in landscaping is one way to help strengthen the foundation of our ecosystem!

If you want to learn more about the importance of native plants check out these articles by the Xerces Society, the Audubon Society, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Forest Service, and the National Wildlife Federation. For more long form information on the importance of native plants check out the Book Recommendations on our Resources page.

How can you tell if a plant is native?

The easiest way to tell if something is native to a specific county in the US is to check the Biota of North American Program Database or BONAP.

If you have the botanical/latin name of a flower then you can type the plant’s botanical name and “bonap” into any web browser and the first search result should be a website with a web address as shown below:

In this example I’m using purple coneflower. The botanical name is Echinacea purpurea. If you don’t know the botanical name you can google the common name with “botanical name” typed after the common name and you should get a result displaying the botanical name.

If you click on the bonap link circled in red above then you will be taken to a web page that most likely has several maps of the United States on it as shown below:

Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower) is just one species of Echinacea. The first map in the top left of the web page shows the range for ALL species of Echinacea. The other maps show the range for each individual species of Echinacea. Now we need to know the second part of the botanical name for purple coneflower which is ‘purpurea.’ Scroll through the maps until you see the one with the full botanical name of the flower you’re looking for.

Now that you’ve found the specific species map you’re looking for, click on it to enlarge.
(If the enlarged image still isn’t big enough for you to make out your county you can hold down the “Ctrl” key and scroll in on your mouse wheel to zoom in. Make sure to zoom back out afterwards by holding the “Ctrl” key down and scrolling your mouse wheel the opposite direction.)

Once you have a bigger picture you can look for your specific county. I’m going to put a red dot on Warren County, KY.

Warren County, KY is dark green on this map. Let’s find out what the colors mean! Click outside the enlarged map to go back to the web page showing all the maps. In the top left click on “Map Color Key.”

This takes us to a web page showing what the different colors on the map mean.

Here we see that the dark green shown on the map for Warren County, KY means that the species Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower) is present and native in the state of Kentucky. The map for Echinacea purpurea has a lot of the dark green color and some light green counties as well. The light green colored counties indicate the species is present and not rare.

Check out some of the other colors to see what they mean. If you see the bright pink color then you know that’s not a plant you want to have in your garden as it is a noxious weed–a weed that has been designated by an agricultural or other governing authority as a plant that is injurious to agricultural or horticultural crops, natural habitats or ecosystems, or humans or livestock.

Where to Find Information on Native Plants

The internet has lots of great, free resources on native plants! Several websites linked below allow you to search for specific plants by common name and botanical name and will give lots of information including a description of the plant, pictures, height, spread, bloom time, states it is native in, what the native habitat is like, preferred growing conditions, how much moisture it likes, how it is used by wildlife, if it provides nectar, and how to propagate it, along with lots of other information.

Now you know how to find the botanical name of a plant, how to check if it is native in your county, and how to find out all kinds of information about that plant!

If you have a specific plant you want to add to your garden, run through these steps to see if it is native to your area, then find out if it can live in the area you want to plant it.

If you want to plant butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in your garden you can look up the type of habitat, water use, and light requirements using one of the above web sites. Below you can see the information from provided for butterfly milkweed:

The web page shows us that butterfly milkweed doesn’t use a lot of water (Water Use: Low), that it likes lots of sun exposure (Light Requirement: Sun), and that it has a high drought tolerance (Drought Tolerance: High). A perfect plant to grow in a sunny, dry spot in your garden!

Now that you know a bit about native plants, check out our Resources page for native garden designs, videos, blogs, podcasts, fact sheets, native plant nurseries, and websites with lots of information to continue your native plant journey!