You can’t have a native garden without native plants!
If you crave a native or mostly native landscape to better support the butterflies and the birds and to be a better steward of your land, you will need a good source of locally grown natives. To illustrate the importance of provenance, take the red maple (Acer rubrum), which is native to Florida and all the way up into the Canadian provinces.
Here in north Florida at the beginning of February, the maples bloomed a month ago and the seeds are ready to drop. (This photo was taken yesterday.) The leaves will be coming out in another couple of weeks. If I would like to purchase a maple, I could buy one from a mail order, an online company, or maybe even a local big box store that might receive its stock from the Midwest. But a maple from Canadian or Midwestern stock would not do well here because its bloom and leaf cycle would be too late in our season. Of course, the maple example is a theoretical question, since maple seedlings are weeds in my yard.
It’s the same situation for dogwoods (Cornus florida). (This photo was also taken yesterday.) It has a wide distribution, but our dogwoods are blooming now, so plants grown from more northern stock would not do well here. For instance, the Arbor Day Foundation offers their Nebraska-grown dogwoods as part of their membership package. I advised that Floridians not take any trees from them in my post Arbor Day Foundation & Florida. And then there are all the plants that are indigenous here that will not be available at nationwide distributors. So what can you do?
With few exceptions, you’re unlikely to find a wide selection of native plants in big box stores. Plus, many of the native plants they do offer are likely to be native cultivars such as a Little Gem Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’), which is a smaller, more compact version of the wild plant. Many people don’t consider the cultivars to be true natives. And the distributors for the big box stores may obtain their trees in bulk from distant sources.
If you’re lucky, a local garden center will have some locally-grown native plants, but in most cases, your best solution is to find a local nursery that specializes in growing natives.
To find such nurseries, you could start by joining your local native plant society, whose members will probably know good local sources, plus you’ll learn a lot and have a chance to be part of the local native initiatives. See my post My Name is Ginny and I’m addicted to the Florida Native Plant Society for more details on what this organization does.
Also, here in Florida, many of the state’s native nurseries have banded together in the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN) and their retail-oriented website www.plantrealflorida.org has a tool to find members or a specific plant. The members adhere to rules, sorta like the BBB, so we know what we are getting when we shop for plants. Read my post on FANN and other Florida resources in Getting Started with Native Plants in Florida.
It’s not easy being green
Running a native nursery is a difficult business. Many customers expect that plants will be inexpensive and will “pop” just like the faux plants the big box stores, which are bred to look good on the shelf in the store and not necessarily to do well in your garden. Some natives take a long time to germinate or become established and so are not inexpensive to grow to a size that will make an impact in the landscape. Plus many customers are looking for the mythical “no maintenance” landscape and are disappointed that this will not be the situation–low maintenance when compared to a lawn, but not no maintenance. A couple of years ago Sue Dingwell summarized some of the problems facing the native plant nurseries in Economics in the Native Plant Industry and Ecotypes: Considerations in Restoration.
Doing my part…
So a few weeks ago, I was heading south for a long weekend. Kari Ruder of Naturewise Nursery in Cocoa had posted a notice of a plant sale on Facebook on the Friday I was heading south. I left a couple of hours early and stopped at her sale. I was there right as she opened in the morning.
She had recently closed down an offsite location. This was an extreme sale and she had priced some plants as low as $1, $2, or $3. Many of these plants had outgrown their pots and most needed to be weeded, but still, how could I resist? And I bought a quart of fresh strawberries, too–an unexpected hostess gift. (Update: Here is Kari’s response: Challenges of a Native Plant Nursery.)
I was excited to find two small Florida coonties for $2 each. Normally, they are much more expensive because of their extremely slow growth rate. These native cycads have an interesting history. The Seminoles made a starch from the roots and later coonties were widely harvested for their roots. It was also known as arrowroot and was used in the manufacture of Animal Crackers! Since it grows so slowly, the native populations could not keep up with the harvest and the atala hairstreak butterfly almost became extinct as the native coonties became rare. For more information see another of Sue’s articles, Coonties: Captivating Cycads.
I am not the best client for my local nurseries because I already have so many natives that multiply here and try to be sustainable and work with what I have, but I should resolve do better in the future. It is important to support their businesses, so that when I’m ready to plant a new project, that someone will be there for me. But more importantly, so they can continue their good work in transforming the over-lawned landscapes in Florida with ecosystems that can support wildlife.
As native plant enthusiasts we will want to do everything to support our native nurseries, because without them, our options for native plants in our landscapes will be very limited.
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