Why Plant Native Shrubs and Trees?

Native plants are those found naturally occurring in a particular area. They are acclimated to its climate, insects, diseases and changing weather patterns. Many of the shrubs offered at garden centers originate from Asia. 

Why Plant Native Shrubs and Trees?

Photo by Dee Nash

I began gardening in my teens when no one, other than Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson, the first lady of the United States, seemed to care much about native wildflowers, let alone other native plants. Fortunately Lady Bird had a huge influence on how we see roadside blooms. But native trees and shrubs now need their own advocate.

Native plants are those found naturally occurring in a particular area. They are acclimated to its climate, insects, diseases and changing weather patterns. Many of the shrubs offered at garden centers originate from Asia. Some are now invasive in the U.S. Hybridizers try to lessen this possibility by creating seed-free cultivars. However, as seen by the Bradford pear, Japanese honeysuckle and butterfly bush, invasive in many states, once a plant is invasive, it’s too late.

Non-native shrubs can also be more susceptible to disease and insects and require more spraying. For those of us trying to lessen the impact of pesticides and herbicides in the environment, native shrubs make sense. Because native plants and insects evolved together, they are dependent upon each other, and native insects don’t often destroy native plants.

Butterflies and their larvae are an excellent example of this codependent relationship. Many butterflies only have one or a few host plants. If you want butterflies in your garden—and who doesn’t—you need to plant for their offspring. One native shrub or small tree I’ve fallen in love with is Lindera benzoin, spicebush. It is the host plant for the Spicebush swallowtail. I love this small tree because it blooms earlier than most plants in my garden. It is a sign of hope that winter is coming to an end.

You’ll read that native plants are easy to grow. Well, some are, and some aren’t. Native shrubs aren’t always easy to find at our local nurseries and box stores so you must often order them from specialty nurseries. Sometimes, these mail order plants are very small and need special care in the beginning. If you attend native plant events and festivals in Oklahoma, Wild Things Nursery often carries native shrubs that are proven performers.

If you want a unique and beautiful fragrance in your garden next spring try Ribes odoratum or R. aureum var. villosum, clove currant, which can handle wetter soil. I’ve found this one not so easy to grow, perhaps because I started with small plants, but it is now starting to gain steam and find its place in my garden. I look forward to its clove or cinnamon-like scent every year. It has blue-green leaves and blooms yellow in spring. Some states do still ban clove currant because it can be an alternate host plant for pine blister rust which affects five-needled pines like white pines.

Viburnum rufidulum, southern blackhaw or rusty blackhaw, is a colonizer so if you don’t want more plants, remove suckers or replant them in other parts of the landscape. The fruit are called drupes instead of berries, and birds love them. Rusty blackhaw is drought tolerant once established, and although an understory tree, it can also grow in full sun.

Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey tea is another worthy shrub native to Oklahoma and many other states. Mine is planted in partial shade in a wetter spot as this tree likes moisture.

Before you plant any native shrubs or trees in your landscape, do some research about their requirements. Oklahoma has a very diverse landscape and what works in the forested part of the state doesn’t always translate to shortgrass prairie. I hope you’ll try at least one native shrub or tree in your garden. They are garden-worthy plants.