What is a native plant?
Native plants are plants that were here before Europeans settled in Michigan in the 1700s. Since then, thousands of plants and animals have been introduced and become naturalized in North America at an unprecedented rate and scale. Naturalized means these non-native (sometimes called introduced or alien) species are capable of establishing and sustaining themselves in the environment without our care. These plants can grow to the exclusion of native plants, becoming what are called invasive plants.
Approximately 30% of Michigan’s 2,600 plant species are alien plants that have become naturalized, largely in the last hundred years.
Can I garden with native plants?
Absolutely! Native plants can be quite beautiful. But don’t think that looks are all these plants have- they’re also well-adapted to the local climate and ecosystem, meaning they require less time and effort from their gardener. Native plants generally require little fertilizer, pesticides, or supplemental watering to keep them looking great. Humans aren’t the only ones who find them attractive, either- native plants provide valuable habitat to birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and other wildlife. If you’re having a problem with too much water in your garden, they’re great for that, too: the deep, fibrous roots of native plants increases rainwater infiltration, reducing stormwater runoff and puddles in your yard. When you garden with native plants, you get all these benefits, PLUS you’re helping to conserve and promote the aesthetics and health of plant communities throughout southeast Michigan!
NAP offers a brochure series that can help get you started. Each brochure offers a list of natives with short written descriptions and planting information for each suggested plant and a list of reference material. You can order these brochures by sending in the order form (pdf), or you can stop by our office and pick some up.
If you'd just like a factsheet that you can have handy, or to give to friends and neighbors, click here (pdf).
What are these "rain gardens" everyone's talking about?
A rain garden is a low-lying area that has been planted with relatively deep-rooted plants that allows stormwater and runoff to be absorbed, rather than directing it into the stormwater system. By allowing this runoff to be absorbed, they can significantly cut down on the amount of pollution and sediment reaching our creeks, streams, and rivers.
Native plants are recommended for rain gardens because they generally don't require as much fertilizer as non-natives and are adapted to local climate and soils. Generally, a selection of plants adapted to both extreme dry and extreme wet conditions are used in rain gardens. These plants take up excess water flowing into the rain garden, and standing water is only present for a limited amount of time. Water filters through both soil layers and root systems before entering the groundwater system, which enhances infiltration, moisture redistribution, and provides habitat for the microbial populations involved in biofiltration. Also, through the process of transpiration, rain garden plants return water vapor into the atmosphere and provide a local cooling effect. Not every rain garden is alike! Many contain different mixes of wildflowers, sedges, rushes, ferns, shrubs and small trees, so they can be customized to fit almost anyone's yard.
For more information about rain gardens and stormwater control in Ann Arbor, please visit a2gov.org/storm. For information on residential stormwater credits, either follow the links on a2gov.org/storm, or go directly here.
For information on rain gardens throughout Washtenaw County, please visit the County's website at eWashtenaw.org, or go directly to their rain garden page here.
Some short lists of SE Michigan natives to get you started:
Native Grasses, Rushes, & Sedges
Where should my plants come from?
Many plant species that are native to Michigan have wide geographic ranges. Because they are likely to be genetically different from region to region, and therefore possibly unsuited to your conditions, it is best to use plants grown in your area. Plants from a local nursery are well adapted locally and are usually the safest to use in the long run. For example, a flowering dogwood that is raised in southern Ohio may not survive our winters nearly as well as a dogwood that was raised in Michigan. If you are unable to locate the desired plants locally, try to find them from other Michigan sources. If that’s not possible, look in Wisconsin, Minnesota, northern Illinois, or northern Ohio.
Where can I find these plants?
As native plants increase in popularity, more and more nurseries are stocking them. Check with your local nursery to see if it has locally-grown native plants. Nursery staff can help match the appropriate native species to your specific site requirements. You can also obtain them from local native plant producers. The Michigan Native Plant Producers Association (MNPPA) is a great resource for purchasing those plants. They offer an online Source Guide with a list of nearly 400 native plants and which member nurseries sell them.
A word of caution: While many nurseries carry native plants, it is important to determine where they came from before making your purchase. Were the plants wild-collected or were they propagated at that nursery? Collecting plants in the wild can devastate local plant populations, so insist on plants propagated from division, cuttings, or seed. Additionally, propagated plants tend to be healthier than wild-collected plants, so they’re not only better for natural areas, they’re better for your garden.
There are many in-depth resources on the internet about native plants. We recommend:
Michigan Flora (University of Michigan Herbarium)
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
USDA Plants Database
Native American Ethnobotany (part of the University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Michigan Natural Features Inventory
The following reference books can provide excellent information on landscaping, plant conservation, and site requirements for specific plants:
Gardener’s Guide to Plant Conservation. Marshall, N. 1993
Gardening with Native Wild Flowers. Jones, S. Jr., and L. Foote. 1990
Michigan Flora, Parts I and II. Voss, E. 1985
Michigan Trees. Barnes, B. and W. H. Wagner. 2004 (1981 1st ed.)
Michigan Wildflowers. Smith, H. 1966
Nature’s Design: A Practical Guide to Natural Landscaping. Smyser, C. 1984
Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America. Hightshoe, G. 1988
Shrubs of Michigan. Billington, C. 1949