Language of Native Plants

Over the past thirty five years of spending significant time outdoors I’ve come to appreciate the language of plants, especially those native to an ecosystem.


Black Tupelo, Nyssa Sylvatica's buttressing and water lines

Black Tupelo, Nyssa Sylvatica’s buttressing and water lines

But like getting to know people from different cultures, the language barrier at first was problematic.  At the time of my first field assignment I had no idea plants could communicate.  Though the professors taught us much in the botany and plant biology courses, actual close encounter with plants opened the doors to the beginning of  understanding about what it was native wildflowers, shrubs and trees were saying.

Today I look back and am very glad I learned this language of plants.

As with any foreign language, it took daily contact, practice and immersion into the subject to become even border-line fluent.  Today plants are still my teachers, only it is easier now because I’ve learned to look more, listen longer and talk less.

What do plants say?

As someone who has made a lifelong occupation based around plants, from design to law, from sustainable gardens to greenroofs – wildflowers, shrubs and trees tell me much about the place where I am at the moment.

Let’s take a quick look at some of things native plants can tell us.

One of the first things plants tells involves a great deal about water.  Interested in whether or not a certain parcel of land is an upland or wetland, then look no further than the local tree canopy outside or on Google Earth or your local satellite computer view webpage.   Upland and wetland plants each possess very different aerial visual signatures.  In fact many government projects rely solely on aerial interpretations for preliminary wetland/upland boundary determinations.

Why is this important?  Well, for one thing if you are an investor who wants to build a commercial project, that ten acre tract you’ve been eyeing from the road may really be two acres of perimeter uplands and the balance an unbuildable interior wetland.

On the other hand if you are looking to purchase land for conservation of threatened habitat, the same holds true.

What the plants are saying about wetlands and uplands holds true across time.  Aerial signatures are enduring and though an area may be in a drought and the site have no standing water, if it has historically been a wetland then the plants will tell, they do not lie.

Moreover, plants such as the Black Gum, Nyssa sylvatica  in the above photo will tell exactly how high the water usually rises on a site during the wet season.  Buttressing of Nyssa’s trunk tells us about seasonal high water levels.  Moreover the plainly visible mosses and lichens growing on Nyssa’s bark reveal the upper limits of just how high wet season floods rise.

Hydrological flow patterns can be  predicted by the presence of many native plant species, communicating to the astute observer that the ground water is a result of rainfall, a perched water table, a seepage head and other hydrological occurrences.  I can ride in a car down I-95 and by looking at only the treetops (while Judy is driving) tell you  if the ground adjacent the highway is a swamp or high ground.

A good plant communicator will usually find out right away all there is to know about the hydrology of a site and not from water witching.

Native plants also speak about soils.  Got sandy soils?  The plants will say so.  Got clay?  Native plants will tell you.  Interestingly, the way plants talk to us about soils is similar to language dialects.  Though the presence of certain indicator Genus communicates broad soil type information, other endemic and locali plants speak volumes about the specific nature of site soils.  Certain carnivorous  plants for instance, like the sundews, butterworts, bladderworts and pitcher plants tell us the site soil is sandy and nutrient poor, lacking in nitrogen.  Other species reflect a variety of soil profiles.

Large trees quickly tell me whether the site is a mature successional or native forest or instead, a overgrown cattle or old agriculture pasture.  Canopies tell revealing stories!  Old pasture or field trees will have wide, broad and horizontally sweeping canopies.  A site never subject to previous clearing will possess trees with limited canopy diameters.  Instead of growing wide, the canopy grows high, competing with neighboring trees for sunlight.  Why is this important?  Again, if you are looking for a preservation site you’d want to choose the more mature forest.  If ou were looking for a development site you’d not want to  pay mitigation fees on a site that was really just an old cow pasture.

Wildflowers tell us so much about art.  You will never have a color coordination problem by listening to what wildflowers say about colors.  Many famous paintings and works of art have been inspired by the colors of plants.  Unfortunately, there is so much information available to us about color through the language of plants, that even beginning to address the complexity here in this short post would be an injustice to the topic.  Suffice it to say that the very best of all art instruction is available in the field next door.  Plants tell us of texture, form, fashion, color and hues.  Wildflowers are the ultimate creation of beauty and teacher of the arts.

Small plants, like deer moss, Cladonia spp. and others can be very accurate indicators of air purity, growing only in areas low in particulate contaminants and other toxins.  Have trouble breathing?  Look for a place with plants who prefer clean air.

As a green roof designer, I always first look to see what plants are growing around a site.  By conducting a preliminary existing plant inventory I am able to ascertain many important features necessary to understand for design purposes.

A quick look at existing plant Genus representation will tell much about wind direction and intensity, available sunlight, water sources and soils.  Plants utilizing C4 photosynthesis are indicative of higher wind velocities.  Wind influence is especially important for green roofs as overbearing breezes can rapidly desiccate and kill plants not suitable for the site.

The presence of wildflowers and shrubs with C3 photosynthesis traits tell me the site has plenty of sunlight, calm wind flow patterns and strong growth potential characteristics.

Certain plants literally ‘scream’ about their desire for being left alone.  One of my previous posts about Allelopathic plants tells why.  I say it is always good to listen when a plant is telling you to ‘stay away’.

Native plants, wildflowers, shrubs and trees speak volumes about wildlife.  Want to  find a particular bird, reptile, amphibian or mammal then listen to the plants.  Wildlife are generally associated with their ‘home’ plants.  Scrub jays can be found in saw palmetto and scrub live oak, fox squirrels in large old trees, eagles in very tall pines and so forth.  The plants will tell you where the wildlife can be found.

Creating a garden based on plant language is an amazing experience.

I haven’t even started and I am already running out of  space to type for this post.  But no worry!  Want to learn more?  Grab your field guide, binoculars and head outdoors.  Native plants are longing to talk!

© 2013, Kevin Songer. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. sandy keeler says

    This brings to mind a time years ago when I was looking at a property. The real estate agent said that the slash pine in the yard told him the property was high and dry. I replied, ‘that bald cypress is telling me an entirely different story’!

    • Kevin Songer says

      Cypress especially talks to us as you said, Sandy – water is in the soil! Cypress is also one of the allelopathic plants whose leaf liter keeps other plants away.

  2. says

    Fascinating Kevin! You are so right about being able to determine wetlands. Across the street from me a man is tirelessly coming weekend after weekend to clear his lot to build a house. I hope for his sake that it is a house BOAT because a good majority of what he cleared are cypress trees.

    Sometimes I wish the plants would talk a little less before I have my morning coffee ;)
    Loret recently posted..Lousy photo, fleeting encounter

  3. says

    What I find more frustrating is when I use native plants in my plans and some ‘authoritative’ landscape contractor claims that they will not grow in the area. I had a job site in Durham for instance that had a sizable tree conservation area that I had located behind and below the storm water bioretention system. In that system, I had specified Yaupon Holly. I front of me and to my client the contractor claimed that Yaupon Holly did not grow in NC. I have to admit that I took great joy in leading my client and the contractor into that tree conservation area and up to a mature (about 15′ high) Yaupon. The point is that natives will still be nixed from plantings if the people implementing the plans remain ignorant.
    Alison Pockat recently posted..Berries for Winter Life!


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