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Going Wild Over Native Plants

Spring has arrived, and plant lovers are turning their focus from tending houseplants to giving outdoor gardens new life. In a year when so many of us are working from home, staring over the computer screen into our backyards, a little garden work is just what the doctor ordered.

While the houseplant trend rages on, another horticulture trend has been taking root. From home gardeners to growers to municipalities, people are starting to go wild for native plants. And with good reason. Native plants are beautiful, well adapted, cost effective and, perhaps above all, they meet the current demand for more sustainable horticulture solutions.

Three native plant experts share their insights on what makes native plants so special, what species to look for, and why they are an important part of eco-conscious horticulture.

What is a native plant anyway?

“A native plant is one that has not been introduced by humans. It wasn’t brought over on a ship or snuck through airport security. It just grows in the area naturally,” explains Craig Willett, manager of Ellepots and RootSmart at A.M.A. Horticulture Inc. “That’s important because it means that native plants are uniquely adapted to local environmental conditions.”

High quality native plants can require less water and maintenance, which supports sustainability and also saves time, labour and money, according to Craig, who spent twelve years running Wheatley Woods Native Plant Nursery & Garden Centre before joining the A.M.A. team in 2017.

Native plants are uniquely adapted to local environmental conditions.

Native plants taking root in horticulture

Lateral roots and 360° distribution are part of a healthy root structure.
Lateral roots and 360° distribution are part of a healthy root structure.

Prior to opening his nursery in 2005, Craig owned a landscaping business in Toronto where his interest in native species all started. “There was an overabundance of plants that were manipulated to look pretty but weren’t necessarily hardy or well adapted for the area,” recounts Craig, who remembers first hearing the phrase ‘native plants’ in the early nineties. “I started looking to see which nurseries were growing interesting species. Sugar maple and red maple were common, but some of the more unique trees were harder to find. Today, it’s incredible to see the variety and curiosity that growers are bringing to the table.”

Among those early pioneering growers was Verbinnen’s Nursery, which specializes in producing high-quality native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. “For the past fifty-five years, we’ve been in the business of growing wholesale plants from seed. Around 2000, we started to see a demand for native plants, which is when we began to specialize in growing local species,” says Alex Verbinnen, propagation manager at Verbinnen’s Nursery.

The innovative nursery is also known for its commitment to root quality. “Reputation matters to us and to our customers,” says Alex. “We continue to participate in research trials, like the RootSmart trial with Vineland Research & Innovation Centre, to ensure we’re learning methods that promote the proper root structure that healthy trees depend on.”

Restoring natural environments

Verbinnen’s nursery harvests a wide variety of seeds from wild origin around Ontario.
The Verbinnen’s team harvests a wide variety of seeds from wild origin around Ontario.

Native plants quickly became a genuine passion for Verbinnen’s. “We saw that our plants weren’t just ornamental, they were serving an ecological function,” says Alex. “We started working with groups like municipal conservation authorities, supplying native species to restore natural environments across Ontario.”

Typically, plants are grown from cuttings or tissue culture, but Verbinnen’s grows from wild seeds harvested from natural environments around Ontario. This approach to propagation supports genetic diversity, which in turn supports healthy biodiversity.

“Genetic diversity gives plants a better chance to adapt to the conditions of the area, allowing for natural succession and ongoing growth in the landscape,” explains Alex. “By harvesting local seeds, we know we’re getting plants that are well adapted to the areas where they will be planted.”

“By harvesting local seeds, we know we’re getting plants that are well adapted to the areas where they will be planted.”

Alex and Craig both encourage growers considering native plants to adopt the tactic of harvesting seeds locally. But, they caution, it’s important to harvest responsibly. “You have to make sure you leave lots of seed behind so succession can continue,” says Alex. A good way to start is by working with certified seed collectors.

Native plants help attract native pollinators

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attract wildlife, including important pollinators like butterflies and bees.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attract wildlife, including important pollinators like butterflies and bees.

You don’t need to be a conservation authority or a wholesale grower to have an environmental impact. By adding a few native plants to the backyard, home gardeners can improve the habitat for bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.

“When you grow native species in your garden, you’re getting more than just pretty plants,” explains Rachel Pigden, assistant manager at Ontario Native Plants. “You’re getting all of the native pollinators and other wildlife that those plants will attract, and you start to realize how much planting this way supports an ecosystem.” The relationship between local flora and fauna is made clear in this checklist of Ontario butterflies and host plants put together by the Halton Conservation Authority.

With consumer demand for native plants increasing, Ontario Native Plants, a daughter company of Verbinnen’s, was launched in 2017. “We sell a wide variety of native plants to home gardeners exclusively online and mail them fresh to your door,” says Reyna Matties, manager of the young, social media-savvy company, which boasts more than 1,000 Instagram followers and counting. “Especially with COVID-19 and a need for no-contact sales, we are thrilled to be able to help people get new plants into their gardens this spring.”

When you grow native species in your garden, you’re getting more than just pretty plants.

Native trees in urban environments

Native trees also bring added biological and sociocultural benefits to urban environments. “Native trees provide the types of cover and food sources that native fauna require to sustain life. These species are integral to holding together our larger natural ecosystems and without them, our already diminished urban animal life would be reduced further,” explains Tyler Bradt, landscape architect and project manager with The Planning Partnership.

“From a sociocultural perspective, native trees can help to define and distinguish a place,” continues Tyler. “The City of Toronto, for instance, has for some time been planting a native variety of Honey Locusts on it’s streets and has recently been adding incredible quantities of native Kentucky Coffee Trees. These trees both ground the city to its geographic place in the world and help define its character. We think of London with its London Plane Trees, Paris with it’s Linden’s. Trees help define cities.”

Popular native plants in Ontario

Ontario is lucky to have a wide range of beautiful native plants on offer. In no particular order, here is a list of some of the most popular trees, shrubs and flowering plants and grasses.

  • Tulip Tree
  • Eastern Flowering Dogwood
  • Cucumber Tree (Canada’s only native Magnolia)
  • Red Maple
  • Sugar Maple
  • Black Gum
  • Sassafras
  • Pawpaw
  • Lowbush Blueberry
  • Elderberry
  • New Jersey Tea
  • Fragrant Sumac
  • Spice Bush
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Wild Lupine
  • Wild Bergamot
  • Michigan Lily

There are lots of plants that have naturalized into our environment but are not native to the region. Don’t be fooled by these common mistakes: Catalpa, Black Locust, Norway Maple, and even Weeping Willow.

The native plant experts interviewed in this article also wanted to share their personal favourites.

  • Craig Willett: Black Gum
  • Alex Verbinnen: American Beech
  • Rachel Pigden: Tulip Tree  
  • Reyna Matties: It’s a tie between Red Oak and Little Blue Stem

Resources for growing native plants

Want to learn more about native plants in Canada? CanPlant, a website and database managed by Dougan & Associates (and formerly Evergreen Brickworks), is a great resource for gardeners, growers, landscapers and municipalities alike. Discover native species by province, type, natural habitat, flower colour and more by visiting Canadian Native Plant database here.

Ontario Native Plants, featured in this article, also provides helpful information for home gardeners and landscapers in Ontario looking to bring native species into the mix. Learn about what grows in Ontario, shop for plants online and find resources for getting a garden started.

Are you a nursery grower?
nursery propagation ellepots rootsmart

Looking for nursery supplies to produce healthy, high-quality trees and shrubs? Try our innovative RootSmart propagation system, developed in partnership with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and proven through field trials to promote healthier root structures and prevent root defects. The RootSmart system uses Ellepots by A.M.A., our sustainable propagation solution for all types of cuttings. We help you choose the right Ellepot size, tray, mix and paper type to best suit your crop and ship them fresh to your greenhouse for fast and easy sticking. We have sold over one billion Ellepots by A.M.A. to growers across North America. See all our nursery solutions here.

Photos featured in this story are courtesy of Verbinnen’s Nursery, Ontario Native Plants, Craig Willett and A.M.A. Horticulture Inc.