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Native Plant Use Continues to Grow

Return to Flower articles.

EchinaceaDo you want to be in vogue? If you want to keep up with the latest trends in the garden then it is time that you jump on the native plant bandwagon. I can hear some of you cheering. “Yes, he has finally come to his senses and is embracing the native movement!” Then there are others of you thinking to yourself, “I don’t want to plant those weeds in my garden.”

The truth is native plants have always been at home in our gardens. We often don’t realize that we even have native plants. I bet that just about every one of you reading this column has a native plant, whether you know it not.

Many of our perennial garden favorites are native. These include such treasures as:

  • Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Coneflower (Echinacea)
  • Kansas Gayfeather (Liatrias)
  • False Indigo (Baptesia)

These have been so common place in the perennial trade that we forget their roots are right here in the Kansas City region.

What is a native plant?
I sometimes find the discussion about native plants interesting. The purists say we should only plant natives. But the funny thing is that every plant we plant is a native to some region. So that brings up the question, what is a native plant? The definition of a native plant, according to the Federal Native Plant Conservation Committee, is a plant species "that occurs naturally in a particular region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions." That makes sense and I can understand that definition. But does that mean we draw the line at plants that only occur naturally in the wild? What’s with this “state” definition? Do plants know and understand state boundaries, like people? I don’t think so.

What about plants native to Wisconsin? What about those that thrive and are native in western Kansas but not the eastern part of the state? Is a plant not worthy of being planted if it is only native in the St. Louis region? These are some of the concerns, or should I say questions I raise about the use of native plants. Just where do you draw the line on the term "native"?

Using native plants in the landscape
I am a great fan of using native plants in the landscape. I think there are many wonderful selections, but instead of using the definition of a native plant I like to blur the lines and use the term “adaptable plants.” That provides a little wiggle room and an expanded palette of selections for the landscape, as in the examples listed above.

I believe the goal we are aiming for with native plants is to create landscapes that are less dependent on inputs. Inputs would include water, fertilizers, and pesticides to name a few. Along those lines we are aiming for landscape plants that are heat and drought tolerant, adaptable to local soils, require less water and will not escape into the wild to damage our local flora and fauna. I think whether we embrace the concept of native plants or not we can agree these are things we should value and desire to have in a landscape.

One concern I do have when talking about using more native plants is that some people think you can plant them anywhere and they will survive with no maintenance. The concept of right plant, right place seems to be muddled with natives. People say, “Well they’re native so they will grow anywhere.” Native plants, like all plants, adaptable and exotic, must have their conditions for growth met. That is, all plants prefer sun or shade, dry or wet soils. So, even a native plant needs to have its conditions for good growth met. For example Little Bluestem, one of the common Flint Hills Prairie grasses, while native, would not thrive under a shade tree. It needs sun to grow. The interesting leaf pattern of a Mayapple found on the woodland floor would quickly die in the blazing hot Midwest sun or in a heavy clay soil. It’s all location, location, location, as native plants are no different.

Purchasing native plants
The most common question I get about using native plants is “where can I get them?” That is a really tricky question to answer. The truth is many of our native plants have gone mainstream. I mentioned a few of them above. You can walk into just about any garden center and find these and many more. The problem is several. First you have to know your plants. Second most places don’t place flashing signs over the plants saying “get your native plants here.” As more and more people go native the diversity of plants will continue to increase. Garden centers are just like any other business; they only carry products that will sell. Demand creates the supply. At this point demand is increasing but the supply side of economics has not arrived.

Native plant purists also muddy the water on availability. Many of our local native or regionally native plants have been manipulated. Through selective breeding and crossbreeding our common native plants have been improved. It has become a cultivar. For example, a true native Echineaca flowers in pink shades. Now you can purchase plants with pink, yellow, orange and red flowers. Are these newly introduced plants native? Switchgrass is a native prairie grass that is heat and drought tolerant. When grown in the home landscape in better soils it flops to the ground and becomes unsightly. We now have shorter and stockier plants that don’t flop thanks to plant breeders. There are now varieties of switchgrass that turns purple in the fall or has blue-gray foliage. They are still switchgrass but don’t look anything like what is found on the virgin prairie.  

To compensate for these breeding programs we have coined a term, nativar. Nativar simply means that our native plants have been altered and improved by man to make them landscape worthy. The problem is some purists will argue that the new plants do not have as much nectar or seeds for the butterflies and birds. They say these plants should not be called a native plant. This then creates confusion for the average consumer and the garden centers selling the plants.

Let’s look for common ground. I think we all should be using more native plants in our landscape. If done right the garden will look the same. We need to get rid of this idea that native plants look like a weed patch. A garden of all exotic plants can look like a weed patch if not properly maintained. There are some in the native plant world that hurt the movement as they use the native plant bandwagon as an excuse not to maintain the garden. “It’s native, that’s how God intended it to be.” That line, honestly, can be used as fertilizer for the garden, if you get my drift. This spring, join the growing movement, no matter where you fall on the spectrum, and add some local and native plants to the garden. You will enjoy the results no matter the reason they were planted.

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