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Garden Obstacles: Navigating Native Gardening Terms

Some of us are seasoned vets when it comes to gardening with native plants but others are still very new and have many questions. I want to take this opportunity to help you understand a few gardening terms that apply to native gardening.

Types of Plants:

Native Plant: There are so many definitions of what a native plant is so I'm going to keep it simple. A native plant is a plant (grass, shrub, tree, perennial, etc.) that is indigenous to a particular region before any direct or indirect human contact. Human contact meaning before European settlers came and introduced their native plants to our ecosystem. For example, Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Blue Wood Aster) is native to Long Island.

Invasive Plant: The USDA defines an invasive plant as a plant that is both non-native and able to establish on many sites, grows quickly, and spreads to the point of disrupting plant communities or ecosystems. For example, Polygonatum cuspidatum (Japanese Knotweed).

Regulated Invasive: The NYSDEC defines it as a species which cannot be knowingly introduced into a free-living state, or introduced by a means that one should have known would lead to such an introduction, although such species shall be legal to possess, sell, buy, propagate, and transport.

What the heck does that definition mean? It means growers make a lot of money selling these plants to garden centers. How is this invasive regulated if it can still be grown and sold? Regulated invasives are required to have a label saying they are invasive! So, I will say it again, how is this regulating invasive plants?

An example of a regulated invasive plant is Euonymus alatus aka burning bush from northeastern Asia. It was introduced to the United States in the 1860s. Since then, it has aggressively spread, choking out native plants along the way, creating a monoculture, and reducing the biodiversity necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

Naturalized Plant: a non-native plant that does not need human help to reproduce and maintain itself over time in an area where it is not native. For example, Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese Spurge), naturalizes where it is planted but is not invasive as it does not meet all the criteria of an invasive plant.

Straight Species: A straight species is the plant you would find in the wild, growing naturally without any alterations. For example, Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed) and Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)

Cultivar/Nativar: A cultivar/nativar is a plant selected and cultivated by humans. For example, Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus', it was bred by Magus B. Nilsson near Paarp, Sweden. He didn't like the droopy petals of the straight species and wanted a deeper color.  He spent more than a decade creating this from straight Echinacea purpurea. Another example is Ascelpias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow'. This variety or 'sport' was found in Colorado among the straight species and was then cultivated to be its own cultivar. It is not as strong as the straight species.

Hybrid: A hybrid cultivar is a cross between 2 or more species in the same Genus. For example, Cornus x 'Cherokee Chief' and Cherokee hybrids (may also be seen as Cornus 'Cherokee Chief' - note the x is missing) are a cross between our native Cornus florida (Common Dogwood) and Cornus kousa (Japanese Dogwood). This hybrid is useless to wildlife as the berries have little value for native wildlife. Hybrids also occur in nature. Quercus (Oaks) will hybridize with each other, but they will not cross between white and red species. For example, Quercus alba (white oak) and Quercus montana (chestnut oak), both white oaks, form the naturally occuring Quercus x saulii (Saul's oak).

Basic Light Conditions:

Sun: 6 or more hours of direct sun

Partial Sun: 4-6 hours of direct sun, including afternoon sun

Partial Shade: 4-6 hours of direct morning sun

Dappled Sun: partial shade with sunlight filtering through the canopy of tree

Shade: less than 4 hours of direct sun

Basic Soil Types:

Loam: Combines all three soil particles in equal amounts: sand, silt and clay (Perdue)

Sandy: Gritty and light colored due to the lack of humus (dark organic matter that acts as a storehouse for nutrients and reduces the effects of compaction)

Clay: Sticky and hard to dig in and it packs together tightly.

Well Drained: water will drain at a moderate rate without pooling or puddling

Wet Soil: consistently moist

Moist aka Average Soil: well-drained with moisture-holding loam

Dry Soil: lacks moisture and is usually low in organic matter and prone to erosion

As always, if you have any questions, please email Kimberly at


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