Landscape clients as well as home gardeners are increasingly interested in creating or expanding their natural landscapes to support pollinators, attract more wildlife, extend seasonal interest, or reduce lawns and higher-maintenance landscapes. Often, natural landscapes begin with native plants, which are naturally adapted to the place they occur – the soils, climate, natural water availability (not irrigation), and surrounding plants, animals, insects, and other organisms. Introducing native plants may also help to reverse the trend of species loss. And, because they are adapted to a local region, native plants tend to resist damage from freezing, drought, common diseases, and insects if planted in that same local region.
Native plants that are thoughtfully incorporated into a designed landscape can contribute to improved biodiversity – from microbes and fungi networks that are associated with plant roots and soil, to leaf and nectar feeding insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. But not all native plants are equal in value. Seeds and plant material grown from local sources that were cultivated in similar environmental conditions as the planting site are characterized as the “local ecotype.” Research has shown that plants of the same species growing at different locations can be quite different in their appearance, growth, and behavior. These variations have evolved over long periods of time and reflect adaptation to local conditions, such as climate, soil chemistry, and water. A plant with a local ecotype will be better suited genetically to regional growing conditions.
Using plants of local ecotype in the landscape helps to preserve the genetic diversity of native species. It is this variability that is a critical element of plant biodiversity and that is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. The natural variations (ecotypes) found in a particular species serve as adaptations to better handle local environmental growing conditions and differ as growing conditions change across varying microclimates.
When plants of local ecotype are used, the resulting landscape also yields more interest with varying shades of color, distinct growth habits, and unique leaf patterns. Incorporating plants grown from seed in a project helps preserve genetic diversity and adds pleasing aesthetic variation to the landscape.
As we look toward 2020 programs, ELA is interested in learning from landscape professionals about their interest in local ecotype native plants. We hope you’ll take a minute to share your interest via our online survey.
Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Importance of Local Ecotype: Guidelines for Selection of Native Plants, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/stpmctn10003.pdf.
U.S Forest Service. What Are Plant Ecotypes?, https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/Native_Plant_Materials/Native_Gardening/genetics.shtml.