What Makes a Plant ‘Native’ and Why Use Native Plants?

Native plants originally occur within a region as the result of natural processes rather than human intervention.  In Missouri and surrounding states, native plants are species that have existed since prior to the time of wide-spread European settlement a little more than 200 years ago. While the activities of indigenous people did affect the region’s ecosystems, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that large-scale habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native plants began to significantly change the natural landscape of the Midwest. Native plant species in the Midwest have evolved here over the millennia and are best adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions. Even more importantly, native plant species have co-evolved with native insect species and provide important food resources for thousands of species of invertebrates that in turn provide food for native birds and other animals.

Choosing native plants in developed landscapes allows them to coexist with nature, rather than compete with it. Increasingly, gardeners and landscape enthusiasts in Missouri and elsewhere in the lower Midwest are choosing native plants. The benefits of native landscaping are fueling a gardening movement that says “no” to pesticides and fertilizers and “yes” to biodiversity and creating more sustainable landscapes. Novice and professional gardeners are turning to native landscaping to manage storm water, reduce maintenance, and promote plant and wildlife conservation.

For Stormwater Management

Using moisture-loving plants in rain gardens and in bioretention and wetland detention basins slows down and absorbs rainwater, thus reducing the quantity and velocity of storm water runoff while improving water quality.

For Less Maintenance

Compared with lawns and mulched tree, shrub, and perennial plantings, landscapes planted with appropriate native plants require less maintenance. They require minimal watering (except during establishment and drought periods) and they need no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Characteristics of native plants that reduce maintenance include:

  • Longevity: plants that live for many decades
  • Three to four-season interest: plants that are appealing most of the year
  • Variable conditions: plants that tolerate a wide range of light and moisture conditions
  • Small and compact: plants that are in scale with a given space
  • Weed elimination: plants that grow into dense groupings and eliminate weeds
  • Seediness: plants that do not spread readily from seed

To Create Wildlife Habitat
A native plant garden or large planting with a diversity of trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses provides food and shelter for insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals throughout the growing season. Leaving seed heads and plant structure throughout winter provides continuing food and shelter for many creatures and provides opportunities to observe nature up close. To underscore the importance of native plants to birds, virtually all terrestrial birds feed their young insects. Native plants provide food for insects, and insects provide food for birds. With no insects, we would have no birds.

For Resistance to Deer Browse

Deer are adaptable and eat a wide variety of plants. Fortunately there are many native plants that deer avoid. Deer rely on their sense of smell to determine whether an area is safe and which plants are desirable to eat. For instance, plants with aromatic foliage such as wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and round-leaved groundsel (Senecio obovatus) deter deer. Some plants repel deer because of their coarse, rough, hairy or spiny textures. This group includes rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa). A deer-resistant garden includes a high percentage of these types of plants.

Educational Opportunities

Native plant gardens present endless opportunities for learning about seasonal cycles, wildlife, and plant life cycles. Quiet spaces outside can be used for art and reading classes. Environmental and conservation topics are taught best outdoors.

For a Sense of Place

People who have lived in one place for a time develop images of their home that create a sense of belonging and familiarity. For instance, those who have lived in rural Missouri know about flowering dogwood—its blossoms and berries have made their mark in the hearts and thoughts of so many Missouri residents that it is the state tree. Many people have recognized this heartfelt connection with nature, and it often is referred to as “sense of place.”

For Beautification

Native wildflowers, flowering vines, shrubs, and trees offer a wide range of colors, textures and forms to create dynamic seasonal displays. Grasses and sedges have interesting flowers and seed heads and yellow–orange fall color. Shrubs and trees have fall color and berries that persist into the winter. Choosing a wide assortment of plants ensures seasonal interest, with the bonus of attracting colorful birds, butterflies and insects.


Terms to know when gardening with native Midwest wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs.

The fruit or nut of oak trees.

A plant that completes its life cycle in one year as opposed to a perennial that comes back year after year.

Cut Back
A pruning technique that keeps leggy plants more compact, promotes new foliage growth, or coerces plants to bloom repeatedly.

A fierce term for removing faded flowers, generally with some kind of pruning tool.

Usually refers to root systems that have no central axis and branch densely in all directions with thin fiberlike roots.

An herbaceous plant in a prairie or savana that dies to the ground every year at the end of the growing season. Grasses, shrubs and trees are not forbs but “wildflowers” such as coneflower and gayfeather are forbs.

Refers to a plant’s ability to withstand adverse weather conditions.

A thicket of small trees and shrubs arranged in a relatively straight line.

A protective covering spread on the ground to inhibit weed growth and conserve soil moisture.

Native Missouri Plant
A plant that existed within the state borders prior to the arrival of settlers.

Nurse Crop
A quick-growing crop such as annual rye or buckwheat, that germinates quickly, thus preventing erosion and protects fall seeded native plants until they germinate in spring.

A compound leaf with leaflets arranged on opposite sides of an elongated axis, for example, honey locust.

Shovel Divide
A maintenance practice that keeps vigorous perennials in their allotted space. When plants begin to get out of hand, insert a round-point shovel into the plant with the back of the shovel against what will be kept and the front of the shovel next to what should be removed. Pull back on the shovel and pop the unwanted portion of the plant out of the ground.

A primary root that grows vertically downward and gives off small lateral roots.

Frequently Asked Questions

We made a list of commonly asked questions and answers. If you don’t find the answers you need, please contact us at

What is a Missouri native plant?
A plant that originated in Missouri and was not introduced. A plant that existed within Missouri state borders prior to the arrival of settlers.

Why should I use native plants?
Native plants conserve soil and water and provide the backbone for non-polluting landscapes because they don’t need fertilizers or pesticides. They support a diversity of pollinators and wildlife through improved habitat and reduce long-term maintenance. They are winter-hardy, drought-tolerant and are less prone to destructive insects and diseases.

Aren’t native plants weedy?
Matching the right plants to a given set of conditions is the key to successful landscaping with native plants. In some cases, such as a 10-acre reconstructed prairie, you may want to use plants that tend to spread energetically by seed or underground rhizomes. This will help the planting become denser at a quicker rate and lower cost than non-spreading plants. However, in smaller landscape situations, it is important to select plants that don’t spread but grow as distinct individual clumps so they don’t invade space belonging to other plants.

Some sun loving prairie plants become “weedy” when they are grown in soil that is too fertile and rich in organic matter. Rich soil causes prairie grasses and flowers to grow too tall and fall over. For this reason, you generally don’t want to amend the soil before planting sun-loving grasses and forbs. Most native plants that grow in shade, such as ferns and Celandine poppy, do benefit from additions of organic matter to the soil because they are accustomed to rich forest soils.

Why do native plants require less water than non-native plants?
Native plants have incredible root systems that support the plants in times of drought. Compared with the roots of most non-native plants, warm-season grasses and flowers have a deep, extensive root system that helps absorb moisture and prevent erosion. Many species of prairie plants have roots that extend four to eight feet into the soil, while cool-season non-native grasses, such as Kentucky blue grass and smooth brome extend only a few inches into the soil. Deep roots allow native plants to withstand long periods of dry weather and so they require little or no watering after they are established.

Do native plants attract vermin?
The answer depends on what you call vermin! Native plants attract colorful butterflies and other flying insects, such as bees, that take nectar and pollen from the flowers and are essential for pollination and thus fruit and nut production. The insects attracted to native plants also are essential food for 90 percent of birds for at least a portion of their lives. Many fruit-bearing trees and shrubs attract songbirds and game birds that eat berries and fruit in the summer, fall and winter. Native plants also provide protective cover and nesting sites for a wide variety of wildlife. So yes, native plants do attract a wonderful array of wildlife that adds interest to our lives.

Where can I buy native plants?
Go to the Resource Guide section of our website for a list of business selling native plants to the public.

Does Grow Native! sell native seeds and plants?
Grow Native! doesn’t produce any native plant product or service. Its role is to promote those who DO sell Missouri-grown native seeds, plants and related products and services. However, Grow Native! may, from time to time, sponsor plant sales with plants supplied by Grow Native! Professional members. Go to the Resource Guide for Missouri-grown native seeds and related services for your farm conservation contract or home landscape needs.