Native Plants

Image credits: Shira Bezalel, SFEI

Native plants have grown in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat type over thousands of years and have naturally evolved to form symbiotic relationships with native wildlife. In North America, native plants are often defined as those present prior to European settlement. They define and structure native habitat types while providing diverse native wildlife support and human health benefits.

Biodiversity role:

Native plants themselves are a key component of urban biodiversity and often have specialized relationships with native wildlife. They facilitate wildlife movement through an urban landscape better than exotic plants and support local pollinators and other insects. Since they are adapted to the local climate, they may be more tolerant of local conditions (including drought).

Human health role:

Native plants contribute to overall biodiversity, which has some direct health benefits. Studies have shown an association between native flowering plants and decreased allergen sensitivity, as well as higher overall plant species richness and improved psychological wellbeing. Native plants can also contribute to a sense of place.

Key tensions and tradeoffs:

Non-native plants may better support human health. For example, though trees may not be native to deserts, they can provide protection from heat. Exotic plantings may also be easier to maintain with urban infrastructure constraints. Use of native plants as an alternative to turfgrass and ornamentals may have a higher initial maintenance cost but often requires less maintenance long term.

Plan for ecological communities

Native plants evolved to grow in community assemblages that perform complementary functions. Wherever possible, consider planting groups of species that would naturally occur together.

Develop native
plantings based on
historical habitat

Historical habitat types can provide a guide for the types of ecological communities that may be best suited for a site. For information about historical ecology methods, see Grossinger et al. Develop planting strategies that match each planting area with a historical habitat type.

Use locally adapted seed sources

Local subpopulations of native species are likely adapted to local conditions. Planting from local seed sources (rather than using cultivars) preserves genetic diversity.

Select plants based
on site constraints

Urban stressors can limit plant survival. For example, plants must be able to tolerate high temperatures, frequent damage, and, potentially, higher-salinity recycled water for irrigation.

Incorporate keystone
plant species

Native plants that are particularly valuable for native species support are known as keystone species. For example, large native oaks provide food as well as vertical structure and shelter. Identifying and incorporating these species into planting plans can help support diverse wildlife.

Integrate locally rare species

Managed plantings provide an opportunity to support species that may be locally threatened or rare. Including these rare species in plantings is also a good way to increase overall species richness.

Evaluate future climate resilience

Climate change is driving range shifts for many species. For longer-lived species, such as trees, evaluate likely suitability to future climate conditions, including changes in temperature, precipitation, and rising groundwater and potential salinity in coastal areas.

Include non-native
species strategically

Native species may not always be compatible with site constraints or desired ecosystem services (e.g., shading). Where native species are not suitable, consider near-natives or species that are likely to provide needed resources to native wildlife.

Source plants grown
without harmful

Avoid sourcing plants grown with harmful insecticides such as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids negatively impact pollinator species and have been associated with adverse developmental and neurological outcomes in humans.

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