Regionally Appropriate or Native Plant – Is there a Difference?

Agastaches can be both a Native and a Regionally Appropriate plant depending on your point of view.

Soon it will be that time of year again when gardener types are looking through catalogs, dreaming about plants, maybe even sketching up a plan or talking to a garden designer. Web searches are made, books are read, and sometimes hands are wrung. For some people, the question comes up in their mind:  “Should I be planting only native plants in my yard?” I would answer that question with a question to you:  “What is your ultimate goal, and how much effort do you want to put in?”

There is a great post from Carole Brown over at Ecosystem Gardening that discusses the good, bad and ugly of native plants in the landscape. It makes me wonder when reading it why people are so biased against “natives”. If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the Ecosystem Gardening before, spend some time reading the various posts – you’ll be amazed at the depth of information Carole provides to her readers.

What is a “native” versus “regionally appropriate”plant? And why should I choose one over the other?  Which type is best? My firm belief is that they both have their place in our garden ecosystems. Why would I say that?

There are many reasons:

  • Native plants provide for food, shelter, soil conditioning, breeding spaces and habitat for the insects, birds, and wildlife that are native to the gardener’s area.
  • Native plants also typically make better use of the native soils, and use less resources to thrive.
  • On the other hand, regionally appropriate plants may or may not be native but are known to do well with the growing conditions for the region in question.
  • Regionally appropriate plants are many times easier to find and grow than natives.
  • Both types provide pollinators with food, are typically not invasive, and give the gardener alternatives when it comes to choosing between having a lawn or providing a wildlife habitat. Sounds confusing doesn’t it?  Let me give you some examples:
  • Many flowering herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme are great examples of regionally appropriate plants for the SouthWest and West Coast.  While they are not native to these areas, the regions of the world they come from have very similar growing conditions.  These same plants are NOT regionally appropriate for the wetter areas of the country, as they would more prone to pests and diseases that thrive in humidity.
  • Many native plants have very specific growing conditions which often times no longer exist in the gardener’s yard.  In order to successfully grow the natives, the ecosystem must first be allowed to stabilize.  Not all gardeners are so patient!  Failures then lead to frustration, and natives are given a bad rap once again.
  • Native Shrubs and Trees can mix very nicely with regionally appropriate plants, and can become the backbone of the native garden while the rest of the plantings are gradually replaced.

So while you are dreaming and designing your garden for next year, take some time to think about how you would like your garden to turn out, both for you and your wildlife garden visitors. It’s easy to create a place that works for all of you.

© 2012, Kathy Green. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Nicely done, Kathy. Living in a natural area only natives (or cash crops –think oranges, lemons, tomatoes) are appropriate for me, but I can see where a gardener in a planned subdivision might make out better with some non-native ornamentals since most of the soil that developers provide has absolutely nothing to do with the region they put it in.
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Army Lives!

  2. says

    I do try to provide more natives and think of who I am feeding; butterflies, hummers, birds, insects etc…I do have non-native ornamentals and cultivars which sometimes adapt OK…I especially like having non-native herbs which can be utilized by critters and by me. I love lavender and have it in the hot dry spots where it overwinters just fine.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Journal-December 2012

  3. says

    Thanks for the shout-out Kathy :)
    These are such important questions you’ve raised here, and we really need to start thinking about the right answers for each of us in our own spaces and work in this field. Our natural environments are changing so rapidly at this point in time that it’s become in some cases quite difficult to define what is “native” and what the best outcome for wildlife and our ecosystems are. You’ve provided a great starting point and food for thought to get us thinking about how to answer these questions.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Ecosystem Gardening Story

  4. says

    Kathy, you won’t believe how timely this is for me. :) Inspired by my new-found friends here at NPWG, I’ve been scheming about how to add even more wildlife value to our yard next year. Before the kids came along, I had grand schemes about filling our yard with natives. We went out and bought a whole bunch of plants. Trouble was, most of them didn’t do very well. There are certain kinds of natives that do very well in our yard–indeed, they come up on their own and I just move them around. We have some holes though, particularly when it comes to attracting pollinators. So, I’ve been thinking of striking a balance between natives and other pollinator-friendly plants that do well in our area.

  5. says

    Kathy, great thoughts! As a native plant ‘geek’ who only uses native plants in my gardens (primarily because I use these as demonstration areas for my nursery) I admit that many regionally appropriate non-native species not only thrive among our native plants, but are well behaved and beautiful as well. For example, Russian Sage is a great plant to integrate into a Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, grassland community. That said, the entire argument for local provenance once again raises its head. How important is it to use species that have evolved over time within a local ecosystem? If we are saying that using regionally appropriate species is an acceptable practice because those plants can thrive and provide habitat for local pollinators and fauna, are we minimizing the idea that plants that are native to our ecosystems are the BEST choice? It’s an interesting conundrum. I certainly agree that some natives are difficult to grow, especially if they are not happy where they have been put, and gardeners are often happier with regionally appropriate species that are more successful. Encouraging integration of the two is preferable to avoiding natives all together and I think the more we can promote the use of natives (with local provenance, of course) and can help people select the most appropriate species for their sites, the better. But there’s lots of work yet to be done….
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Ode to Red-Osier

  6. says

    Kathy, you raise important issues here – and this is why it’s never a good idea for a gardener to get their advice from anybody other than somebody familiar with local conditions and plants rather than a nationally or international information source such as a book, magazine or website about gardening. Somebody that can help you assess your soil and locale and determine what will work there and what might be potentially damaging (or supportive of) local ecosystems. Just about everywhere is its own micro-climate….

    A locally-based garden coach can help with this – and I’m not just saying this because I am one myself :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

  7. says

    My garden runs about sixty percent native at the moment, and I always go native on shrubs and trees, since those are plants that could be there for a LONG time. (Okay, okay, ONE daphne. It reminds me of my mother. *grin*) I also always go native with grasses and sedges, because in my experience, once you’ve got a grass, you aren’t getting it out again in a hurry.

    On perennials, though, I’m more inclined to experiment, since perennials are the FUN plants! So that’s where a lot of my non-natives show up—stuff like catmint, which will survive all our weather extremes and keep on putting up flowers, and thyme, which makes such a marvelous ground cover in small spaces. And c’mon, snowdrops. Early spring requires snowdrops, or it’s just extra-late winter.

    But there too, regionally appropriate is very important, because otherwise they A) die or B) require lots of water and fertilizer. Then die. Life is too short.

    I think it’s important to emphasize to gardeners who may be iffy that they don’t have to tear out ALL their beloved plants for natives—just makes ‘em dig in their heels. But added a few natives for the butterflies is easy and rewarding and serves as a gateway drug…
    UrsulaV recently posted..As Good An Explanation As Any

  8. says

    This is a VERY interesting post, bringing up questions that I’m guessing most of us struggle a bit with. One point that hit me when I read your title is the concept of expanding native plants ranges – something that I think we gardeners can help with as our climate changes. Here in south central Kansas, we are getting much hotter and drier, so I am beginning to look south and west for native plant species that I can trial here in my yard to see if they seem appropriate. Climate change is occurring at a much faster rate than plant species traditionally migrate…so maybe this is a function where we can aid nature in adapting to the changes that are occurring.
    Gaia gardener recently posted..Patchwork Prairie

  9. Siouxellen says

    Good points all. I have struggled with the same dilemma in my partially native garden in West Michigan. I have to admit, ripping out the barberry was exhilarating. But doing the same to the hosta, well, haven’t got there yet and may just leave them. The deer sure love to munch on the hostas, so maybe we just leave them that little piece of candy and focus on cultivating new natives. Personally I think it more important to remove the invasive plants, many of which move in and set roots without our help.


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