by Virginia L. Morris, El Paso Master Gardener
What is a native plant? Native plant is a term used to describe plants endemic (indigenous) or naturalized to a given area in geologic time; that is, native plants evolved in a local area. Native plants grew naturally in an area before humans began to bring in plants from non-local areas.
What is an area? An area is defined as a region with similar characteristics, such as weather, soil, rainfall, and altitude. Plants may be native to North America, but not necessarily native to every state in the U.S. Some native plants have adapted to very limited, unusual environments or exceptional soil conditions like in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Native plants form a part of a cooperative environment, or plant community, where several species or environments have developed to support them. This could be a case where a plant exists because a certain animal pollinates the plant and that animal exists because it relies on the pollen as a source of food.
Do my natives have to be native to my town or my state? The more local you are in choosing native plants, the better your success rate will be when growing them. However, we are gardening, not building a preserve. Start by including a handful of plants which are native to your county in West Texas or East New Mexico and build from there.
How can I identify plants that are native to El Paso or West Texas? An excellent source is the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens near the Centennial Museum at UTEP. Tour the gardens to see the diversity and beauty of native plants in a natural setting. An extensive, illustrated, and descriptive online plant reference is accessible at Chihuahuan Desert Plant Database. Also, see the “Recommended Plants and Plant Selectors” on our Gardening Topics-Links page.
Why Should I Garden with Native Plants? There are numerous reasons to grow native plants, some selfish and some altruistic. The selfish reasons? Native plants require less work and resources. Since native plants have spent centuries adapting to your garden’s growing conditions, they won’t need much in the way of supplemental fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, winter mulching, and most importantly, supplemental water.
Native plants tend to be well behaved in the garden. They are rarely invasive. Having evolved within the local area, they have natural predators that help to keep them in check.
The altruistic reasons? With native plants, you are replacing lost food and habitat for native wildlife of all kinds by growing those plants that the animals depend on in the wild. You will be working to replace those “corridors” that they use when migrating or moving around our area. You will be helping to bring a bit of ecological balance back to the small piece of the planet you care for.