Native Plants

Which Plants Are Native To Your Area, and How are they Used? Here’s How to Find Out!

If you want your garden to do the most good for nature, then you need native plants. The native plants of your region are entangled in complex co-evolutionary relationships with the entire web of life in the place where you live. From the soil microbes to the insects to the birds and large animals, native plants are the foundation of our mutual success. Adding native plants to your yard, garden, or farm is a great gift to your ecosystem, and it isn’t a sacrifice. Many native plants are just as beautiful, just as nutritious and delicious, and just as medicinal as introduced plants. If you are interested in learning more about the plants native to your region and the amazing benefits they provide, this article is for you. The resources I share in this article will help you create your own dazzling palette of native plants with which you can paint your yard, your flower garden, your vegetable garden, your orchard, or your farm.

Native Plant Finder

Native Plant Finder will jump start your journey towards finding the most ecologically beneficial native plants of your zip code. This tool ranks native plants according to the number of caterpillar species each can support, to help you identify and prioritize the most beneficial native plants. It will tell you how many species of butterflies and moths use each plant as a caterpillar host (baby food), and it will list up to 15 individual species of insect that depends on each plant. This is not a comprehensive list of native plants, and it seems to exclude woody species (tree, shrub, etc), but it is a valuable tool to add to your native plant research arsenal.

Why do we care about caterpillars? Lucky caterpillars grow up to become beautiful moths and butterflies, such as the Luna Moth, the Monarch Butterfly, and the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Unlucky caterpillars make birds healthy and happy. Many species of birds depend on caterpillars as a food source, especially while they are raising young. Insects are one of the foundational pillars of the entire web of life. Please do not use pesticides on your plants. Instead, plant beneficial natives in prolific numbers so that there will be enough to share.

USDA Plants Database

The United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service publishes this very comprehensive plants database. You can search for any plant by common name or scientific name, any genus by scientific name, and you can also filter by state, nativity status, plant family, growth habit, and more. Whenever I hear about a new-to-me native plant, I visit this tool to learn more. I like to search by genus, then filter by my state (Indiana) and then limit the search to US natives. This helps me find other related native plants, which may or may not have similar uses.

BONAP: The Biota of North America Program

BONAP is a very well respected source for plant native range data. Many native plant experts assert that the BONAP native range maps are more accurate than those that the USDA publishes. It seems to be the gold standard in native range data. However, this is not a very user friendly tool. I prefer to reference some of the other sources listed in this article first to create list of plant genera that I am interested in knowing more about. Once I have that list, I go to BONAP to dive in deeper and confirm which plant species in that genera are native to my county. I use the North American Plant Atlas tool to view county maps alphabetically by genus.

Human Uses of Native Plants : Edible, Medicinal, and Other

If you’re interested in finding out which native plants are edible, medicinal, or have other uses for people, that’s a more difficult question. I have been working on this for the last several years, and it has taken me through dozens of books, several databases, seed catalogues, nature walks, and an entire herbal medicine certificate program. I will share the sources that I have found most beneficial with you here, but I caution you: cross-reference these plants before you eat them. Most of these sources have incomplete information.

Some specific considerations: Just because one author says that a plant has edible uses does not mean that you can eat every part of the plant, it does not mean you can eat the plant raw, it does not mean you can eat the plant in large quantities. A plant listed as edible might also have strong medicinal properties that might not be a good match for your body, or you might be allergic. Some plants require a special method of preparation to become edible, or they might only be edible if they are harvested in a specific way, at a specific time. A source might accidentally reference a plant in error, or confuse one plant with another plant. A plant might have poisonous lookalikes. Some plants that appear in lists of North American native plants or regional native plants may not be native to your particular state or bioregion. Plants listed in local foraging guides are frequently non-native and often invasive plants.

I don’t intend to frighten you away from eating and using these plants. Native plants are not inherently more dangerous than the introduced plants we are used to eating. It’s just a good idea to learn as much as you can about unfamiliar foods before incorporating them into your diet. Native plants that are closely related to familiar food plants are great places to start. If you know you can eat raspberries, then there’s a good chance that the native black raspberries will be just fine for you. If you know you’re allergic to walnuts, you should probably avoid eating our native black walnut. If you are a total beginner and you don’t come from a culture that eats pokeweed, don’t start with that one. Common sense gets you pretty far, and solid research will take you the rest of the way.

Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

Native American Ethnobotany Database

A database of known plant uses from Native American cultures. There is much information here, and it is a very useful database. However, I notice that the tribes from my home county are not represented. Consequently, some of our useful native plants are not present in this database.

This database will not tell you whether a plant is native to your region, and you cannot filter it to show uses for plants within a specific area. You must first know which plants are native to your area, and then search for those plants in this database to learn about potential uses.

Plants For A Future Database

This database is not limited to North American native plants. Rather, it is a global database of known uses of plants from around the world. This database is permaculture-themed. It pulls from many other sources and aggregates known uses of many plants. It will not tell you which plants are native to your area, nor can it be filtered by native range. However, you can use it to gain more information about plants that you already know to be native to your region.

Books For Further Reading

Native American Ethnobotany, Moerman
It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation, Ortiz
Acorn Foraging, Bayer
Eating Acorns: Field Guide – Cookbook – Inspiration, Mayer
Nature’s Garden: Edible Wild Plants, Thayer
Native Plant Agriculture vol. 1, Indigenous Landscapes
Native Plants of the Midwest, Branhagen
Edible Wild Plants, Elias & Dykeman
Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer
Trees of Indiana, Tekiela
Wild Food Plants of Indiana, McPherson
Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests, Mudge & Gabriel
The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions, Garrett
Iwigara, Salmon
The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II, Wood

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