Use Native Plants to Protect Virginia's Ecosystem


(Thursday, May 15, 2008 3:00 PM EDT)

French wines, hand-made rugs from the Middle East, silks from Asia - there's a certain allure to the foreign and exotic, but when it comes to plants, people might want to stick with native.

Many Virginia native plants (plants that were grown here prior to European settlement and evolved in this region of the world) have been replaced with exotic and alien invasive plant species, and the landscape and environment are suffering as a result.

“Exotic invasives are disruptive and dominant,” said John Magee of GreenWorks Landscapes, which is in Chantilly. “They go charging across the land, not only changing the vegetation of the area, but changing the quality of the soil.”

Experts such as Kim Strader, curatorial aid of the native plant trail at University of Virginia's Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, see native plants as the best plants to use in landscaping, because “they're used to our weather.”

“They're used to our droughts and our late cold snaps. They're here to stay,” Strader said.

And having adapted to the area's weather conditions, they are great for water conservation, because no extra watering is necessary, she said.

Native plants also are better for the wildlife in the area because exotics do not provide the nutrition found in native plants that native insects and animals need.

But because plant buyers are attracted to the fragrance and bright colors of exotics (Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive and burning bush, to name a few), it has become difficult to find native plants in nurseries.

“Our own native plants are like exotics to us,” Strader said. “They're not as readily available in the nursery industry. It's a tide that's slowly starting to shift, but we have a long way to go.”

So, for homeowners interested in landscaping with natives, which plants are available - and are good alternatives - to the exotics?

“Instead of burning bush (an Asian shrub known for its bright fall colors), use Virginia sweetspire,” Magee said. “Instead of Russian olive, use winterberry to get the berries, or summersweet for the fragrance.”

“As far as small trees, I recommend our good old Eastern Redbud trees, as well as our native and state flower, the dogwood,” Strader said. “I also recommend that people use serviceberry instead of Bradford pear. It gets early white blooms and little red berries that birds just love.”

Native columbine and Christmas fern are herbaceous perennial plants that homeowners might want to use in their gardens, since they are relatively easy to find in nurseries, she added.

Although work still has to be done to make native plants more mainstream, there is a wealth of knowledge available to people interested in learning more about them, which can be found on sources such as Blandy Farm's Web site ( and the Virginia Native Plant Society's Web site (

“If we can get people to stop using exotic invasives, we can heal the landscape,” Magee said.

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