The Importance of Native Plants in Maryland

What did you grow in your yard last spring? How many were native species? Many people do not realize the important benefits provided by native plants over nonnative species. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a plant is considered native if it occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction. With increasing urbanization across the country, native plants are often removed and replaced with more exotic plants, many times from Europe or Asia. Plants that have evolved elsewhere in the world and are physically moved to a new location, seldom support local wildlife as well as native plants do. Topping the list of native plants that support wildlife is oak trees, which support over 500 butterflies and moths. And some species, like the monarch butterfly, can only survive on native plants like milkweed, which is the sole food that sustains the butterfly through each of its life stages. Native plants also provide important benefits to the environment, such as preventing erosion, reducing air pollution, and protecting  biodiversity..

Why are native plants so important?

First, native plants often have a deep root system that increases the soil’s capacity to store water. In urban and suburban areas, this means native plants can reduce water run-off and flooding.

Native plants also keep the air cleaner, as these natural landscapes typically don’t require lawn mowing or maintenance. Frequent lawn mowing can have negative consequences for the environment as it releases pollutants and ruins animal habitats. In fact, the EPA estimates that each gas-powered lawn mowers produce 11 times as much as pollution as a new car, and lawn care produces 13 billion pounds of toxic pollutants per year. 

Additionally, native plants help provide food and shelter for wildlife, as well as support pollinators (e.g., bees and butterflies). These pollinators are important for our food system, as one third of all agricultural output depends on them. Insect and animal pollinators are vital to the production of crops for foods, fibers, oils, medicines and the majority of things we eat or consume. In particular, these plants provide a protective cover for many insects, as well as seeds, fruits and nuts for birds and mammals. Invasive plants, or nonnative species that spread from the point of introduction and become abundant, often replace the vegetation certain animals need to survive, leaving these animals without a suitable and healthy habitat. 

Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

Growing native plants is important for many reasons varying from the environment to saving money on lawn care. Yet many people do not consider planting native plants in their gardens. 

Because of urban sprawl, the U.S. has lost about 150 million acres of natural habitat and farmland, and that number is continuing to grow. This is also a big issue seen in Maryland since its population has grown about 5% since 2010. About 27% of the 6.2 million acres of land in Maryland has been developed, with much of the undeveloped land fragmented to the point where natural habitats have become degraded and no longer function as a suitable environment for many species. Development in Maryland and across the country has affected and will continue to affect native plants due to both habitat loss and fragmentation.

What is being done in Maryland for native plants?

Fortunately, there are organizations around the country and in Maryland specifically tackling this issue and trying to help make the public more aware of native plant conservation and restoration. The University of Maryland Extension provides information on what native plants are, as well as more personalized information for someone looking to add these plants to their own backyards. For instance, they have suggestions for native plants best suited for shade vs. sunny slopes, native plants for meadows, deer resistant native plants and as well as further information on how to go about choosing the right plant. This is a great resource for someone with little background in native gardens and wants to learn more on where to start.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation provides tips similar to the UMD Extension, as well as stresses the importance of preserving these plants since the coastal regions by the Bay have lost much plant diversity and heritage of its native plants, which are both needed for wildlife habitat.

Additionally, the Maryland Native Plant Society is a local organization that helps protect native plants through appreciation, conservation and education. They host an annual fall conference, youth programs, field trips and monthly meetings, including a virtual webinar on grassland loss seen specifically in Maryland in August 2020. They also produce publications for gardeners to help with topics varying from landscaping to how to shop for native plants. 

How might a MSTEHP fellow help with Maryland native plants?

A MSTEHP fellow could help create a statewide conservation policy that aims to increase the number of native plants in Maryland, as well as spread awareness of the plant biodiversity loss people in the state face. As a parallel example, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) described how farmers will need to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050, requiring a 60-100% increase in global food production. These food demand pressures are further caused by an increase in overall consumption, which are a result of higher incomes and the middle class growth. The AAAS report states that we need more crops on less land with fewer natural resources. Native plants can help with this as they provide additional pollinators for agricultural crops. AAAS continues to research agricultural innovations to help grow more on each acre, while simultaneously reducing the impact of global farming.

The Idaho Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (ISTPF) has also researched food insecurity and possible solutions, including food banks and meal programs that distribute food. About 1 in 8 Idahoans are food insecure, and about 1 in 6 Idaho children face food insecurity. However, any solution needs to include the reality that bees are a major answer in the equation. This food assistance work in Idaho could not be done without the preservation and utilization of native plants since bees are needed to pollinate about 85% of the cultivated crops in our gardens and fields.   

What’s the bottom line?

Native plants are an important part of any habitat. They not only help to prevent erosion and flooding, but also keep the air cleaner, provide food and shelter for wildlife as well as support pollinators. With increasing urbanization throughout the country, native plant habitats are being degraded. There are many organizations across Maryland trying to help share their knowledge of native plants to gardeners and farmers. A MSTEHP fellow has the perfect opportunity to make a difference through possible statewide policy conservation efforts to help save the native plants and the pollinators that depend on them.

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