Should I Plant Native Trees?

Whether you realize it or not, a debate is raging over YOUR yard.

Specifically, what kind of Trees should you plant in your yard? Should you plant native Trees, or are exotics OK?

Here’s what all homeowners need to know about this hot-button issue.

What Is a “Native” Tree?

A native Tree is a species that has been growing here for thousands of years—before Europeans and other outsiders arrived, bringing their own exotic plants from far-off lands.

What Is “Here”?

It depends on how precise you want to be.

“Here” can mean a huge region such as the Eastern United States, or a more specific area such as a state or even a county. American Yellowwood, for example, is generally considered “native” to the Southeast, although purists would insist that this Tree is truly native only to those small pockets where it occurs naturally in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Are Cultivars Natives?

This is another sticky issue.

Cultivars (“cultivated varieties”) are selections of plants that are propagated by cloning to maintain their special characteristics—like ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud, a purple-leaved version of our native Redbud Tree.

forest pansy-2

Is ‘Forest Pansy’ native? Like most growers, we at Bower & Branch would say yes, although strict nativists would say no, as clones lack the natural genetic diversity found in seed-grown populations.

Are Native Trees Better Adapted than Exotics to Conditions in My Yard?

Yes—well, maybe.

Native plant proponents often argue that because they have evolved locally for thousands of years, natives are automatically better suited to conditions in your landscape, requiring less attention and inputs than exotics.

But while it is true that natives in general are well-adapted to local soils and weather patterns, it is a common misconception that natives are necessarily easier to grow in the landscape. Some natives, like Franklinia or American Beech or Paper Birch, are adapted to specialized situations in the wild and can be fickle in the home landscape, especially if good topsoil has been stripped away, as often happens on new construction sites.

Many exotics perform better in the average garden than many natives. Although some of them perform too well.

Exotics May Become Invasive

Some exotic plants grow so well here that they begin to seed themselves into wild areas, becoming “invasive.” Invasive plants wreak havoc on ecosystems, crowding out the native plants that local wildlife depends on for food and shelter. Kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, and Tree of Heaven are three exotic plants that have become invasive in the U.S., competing with natives for resources, reducing diversity, and threatening the stability of food webs wherever they go.

Native Trees Support Local Wildlife

While exotic Trees do sometimes provide berries for birds or shelter for small animals, native Trees are almost always of vastly more benefit to local wildlife than exotics. Most importantly, native Trees feed our underappreciated insects, upon which the entire food web depends.

In his eye-opening book, Bringing Nature Home, entomology professor Doug Tallamy presents research showing that exotic Trees and other plants support 29% less biodiversity than native Trees and plants. Native Oaks, for example, were found to feed a whopping 518 species of native butterflies and moths, whereas exotic Zelkovas, Laburnums, and Dawn Redwoods supported none. Other native Trees scoring especially high for wildlife in the study included Birches, Poplars, Cherries, Maples, Elms, Pines, Hawthorns, and American Beeches.

What’s the Argument FOR Exotic Trees?

Most exotic Trees are not invasive, and these well-behaved Trees include some of our most useful, uniquely beautiful, and best-loved Trees.

Giving up exotics would mean no more Flowering Cherries, no Apples, Pears, or Peaches. We would never enjoy the fragrance of Lilacs or Star Magnolias or inhale the cotton-candy scent of Katsura Trees in the fall. We would have to say goodbye to Golden Rain Trees, Paperbark Maples, Mimosas, Cedars, Tri-Color Beeches, Norway Spruces, and Weeping Willows. We would say “sayonara” to Japanese Maples, Ginkgos, and Hinoki Cypresses.

golden-rain-treeGolden Rain Tree

That’s a lot to ask of any Tree lover.

So Should I Plant Native Trees?

YES! Absolutely. Planting a native Tree is one of the best things you can do for the betterment of the world we all live in.

But should you plant only native Trees? The choice is yours. Tell us what you think!