Species of trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses and ferns that grew in eastern North America before Colonial times and coevolved, over millennia, with the region’s animals, insects, amphibians, bacteria and fungi. Many of these native plants depend on one another for survival, and their interrelationships help sustain ecosystems (see Biodiversity).
“Native” is a relative term, given the natural ranges of plant species: Some plants native to New England, for example, may also be native to mid-Atlantic or Midwestern states. Two-thirds of the plants in New England’s natural areas are still native; the balance are exotic species introduced from other continents.
Species that are not native to a particular locale and spread aggressively. Without the controls that predators provided where these plants originated, invasive species can outcompete native plants or animals, altering habitats, reducing biodiversity and contributing to species extinctions. Although all non-native species are considered exotic, not all of them are invasive (e.g., Queen Anne’s lace). Many of the species that have proven invasive in the Northeast came from Eurasian locations with similar climates, enabling them to thrive here.
This naturally occurring form of a native plant, also called a “true native” or “wild-type,” grows from seeds that develop when flowers are pollinated, mixing genes from multiple individuals. Genetic diversity leads to variations in how individual plants respond to conditions such as heat, drought, flooding or pollution, helping the species as a whole to be more resilient.
A selected form of a native plant (chosen for ornamental traits such as double flowers, novel color or short stature) with a commercial name, such as Aster ‘Purple Dome.’ Most cultivars are reproduced by cloning, so they lack the genetic diversity (and resulting resilience) of seed-grown native species. Increasingly, cultivars are patented and may not be propagated by individuals or nurseries. Recent research confirms that many cultivars do not support the needs of pollinators and other wildlife as well as true natives do.
A wild plant, whether native or exotic to a particular region, grows and reproduces without human assistance. Many domesticated plants (such as garden vegetables) depend on humans to reproduce and grow.
The web of interdependent life that comprises plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other microscopic creatures. It manifests at the ecosystem level (in forests, meadows, wetlands and marine environments) and within a given species (helping shape its genetic diversity and resilience). At all levels, human expansion and practices threaten biodiversity.