A Brief Introduction to Native, Exotic, and Invasive Plants

tree roots and soil

“Going native” is the best thing you can do for your yard and community. Read on to understand why exotic and non-native plants are a problem.


Doing a search here on BuildDirect Blog Life at Home for “native plants” will conjure no fewer than four pages of results — some of which only mention the topic, others devoted entirely to it.

And yet there’s always more to say on the subject, because we’re not “getting it.” Everywhere you look, you’ll see plants and shrubs and trees that likely look out of place and don’t belong where you are.

But why does this matter, and what should we do about it?

Exotic by nature

It’s hard for us to imagine today, but there was a time when the 100-Mile Diet was the only diet that existed. There were no avocados, no pineapples. There wasn’t any cinnamon or nutmeg.

Life was hyperlocal because there was no safe, easy way to transport food over long distances. These were the days of sailors suffering scurvy on long sea voyages to the new world. Those who survived the brutal travels would be welcomed home as conquerors of exotic lands.

Like you may have seen in the film Master & Commander, ships would frequently have a naturalist, a scientist of the day whose life was devoted to studying the new species of plants and animals found abroad. Oftentimes they would bring samplings of these exotica home to wow the public.

Those who could afford to flaunt their wealth were the first to create dramatic landscapes at home, filled with the fauna and flora found by those naturalists on their voyages to foreign lands.

It would be many decades before we would begin to see the folly of these ways. It is even now that we pay the price for things which should not have been imported/exported.

The damage done

The fall-out of this worship of all things exotic in nature took a long time to become evident. Slowly we realized that ecosystems were delicately balanced, and the moment you remove one element, the whole thing could come crashing down like a Jenga tower.

Without that insect, a bird is not attracted. Without the bird, the flower is not pollinated. Without the pollen, the fruit will never come. Without the fruit…

And so it goes. We’ve learned the hard way that nature did some pretty brilliant work when it combined all its grasses and plants in specific areas. Somehow, they all lived together in perfect harmony, encouraging wildlife and everything else to join its fold.

Invaders! invaders!

But along comes the new species, sailed from overseas. Beautiful in its own land. Plays well with its own kind. Plant it in a new region, and who knows?

Where I live, among the worst the invaders is the dreaded Scotch Broom. It blooms after 50 to 80 growing-degree days, and in temperate climate like one finds here in Victoria, Canada, that means they bloom 4 to 5 times a year — every time, the pods crack open and seeds are forcibly expelled. You think weeds grow fast? Try Scotch broom.

scotch broom blue sky yellow flowers

Around the world, Scotch broom has become an invasive species anywhere outside of Western Europe. Presumably it was brought along by sentimental Brits as they colonized all corners of Planet Earth, and now the legacy is this aggressively hardy plant that chokes the roots of trees and anything else in its path. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Scotch broom alone costs that state nearly $50 million per year in lost lumber.

And this is just one species going where it doesn’t belong.

Foolishness and hardiness

For me, I think man’s ultimate arrogance is on display with grass. Somehow we decided grass was a staple that every home and yard must have, and not just any grass. It had to be soft to sit on, deep green, nice to mow, and hardy for day-to-day traffic. So, cultured grass.

Look at places like California, or Arizona, where the natural condition is desert-like, but people everywhere are planting English grass, which in turn needs ample water, while Dust Bowl weather conditions are threatening reservoir levels like never before.

And that’s all because of our stupid idea of what a proper yard should be. This doesn’t need to be the case, because there are natural grasses which wouldn’t require watering even in the desert, because they’re native plants that have survived drought conditions in those regions since time began.

A history of surviving

It’s those plants — the natural shrubs and trees and grasses that native to the region — that help keep ecosystems balanced. From insects to birds to larger mammals, they’re all dependent on the plants and grasses found regionally.

The more development we do, the more natural groundcover we remove and replace with custom landscapes we’re fond of because they’re pretty, then the more we threaten to upend ecosystems that may never recover from our whimsy.

If you’re considering any landscaping projects this year, please do your part and plant native plants and grasses. You’ll use less water. You’ll have an easier time controlling pests. You’ll help local birds and other wildlife to thrive. In short, you’ll be playing a part in saving your little corner of the world.

To find out more about native vegetation for your region, talk to your local librarians, nurseries, and landscaping professionals.

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