Spring has finally come to Kirksville and gardening season is kicking off. As you’re choosing your seeds to plant this year, you’ll see many plants that are not native to the Missouri area but have been imported from other states, or other countries. There are good reasons, however, to give due consideration to the state’s own native species. Choosing native plants for your garden can have a variety of benefits for you and the ecosystem around you.

1) Native plants attract native wildlife

Many of us plant gardens as much for the aesthetic value of the creatures they attract as the plants themselves. When you choose native plants for your garden, you provide important food sources like nectar, pollen and seeds to native butterflies, birds and other animals that call Missouri home.

Jennifer Schutter, a horticulture specialist at Adair County’s University of Missouri Extension office, said native plants are a great way to support and attract Missouri’s native bird species, which include songbirds like cardinals, chickdees, orioles and bluebirds.

“Anything that produces a berry will attract birds to your landscape,” Schutter said.

According to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, native trees like oaks and asters are essential to support birds. There are also many native species that attract the nectar-eating ruby-throated hummingbird, including cardinal flowers and copper iris.

2) Native plants are durable and low-maintenance

Because they are well-adapted to the environment, most native plants require far less care from a gardener than a delicate non-native not used to Missouri weather.

“They do not require much pruning or care,” Schutter said. “They have deep root systems, so once they’re established they can survive drought much better than non-natives, which tend to be more shallow-rooted.”

If you’re looking for plants in your garden that are likely to endure dry conditions, good choices include the prairie dropseed, black-eyed Susan or common nineback. All grow deep, extensive root systems that non-native plants less adapted to the area can’t compete with, and will draw water resources from deep underground if they aren’t getting it from rain.

3) Native plants look good year-round

Using native plants in your garden is a great way to keep it in full bloom all year, or at least April through October.

“There are native plants that bloom in the spring, natives that bloom in the summer and natives that bloom in the fall,” Schutter said. “If people plant a diversity of plants, whether it be flowers, trees or shrubs, you can have color for all seasons.”

Many native plants produce colorful flowers in all shades, from the bright yellow celandine poppies and fiery orange Michigan lilies to the purples of feathery bluestar, blue-eyed Mary and rose verbena.

For keeping your garden colorful in the cold months, the Missouri Prairie Foundation suggests the American beautyberry and the aromatic aster, which both sprout delicate pink flowers in the fall.

4) Native plants are good for the environment

Gardening with natives can help create a healthy environment for people and animals. Because native plants attract beneficial insects for the region, there’s never any need to apply pesticides that can be harmful to humans and the environment.

“They’re pretty much pest-free and disease-free,” Schutter said.

Using native plants can also help conserve water and their longer roots can prevent erosion. Many native plants, especially long-lived trees, can even cut down on climate change by storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

5) Non-natives can cause problems

One of the most important reasons to plant native plants is that non-natives often cause trouble. Plants that start out in a garden, like Callery pear trees and Japanese honeysuckle, can escape from cultivation and start to take over the environment.

Hardy non-native plants brought to the United States for landscaping can squeeze out native plants and wreck havoc on local ecosystems. By planting natives in your own garden, Schutter said, you can help preserve biodiversity and take back Missouri’s landscapes from plant invasions caused by poor gardening decisions in years past.

Early spring is one of the best times to plant native species, so now that you know the value of Missouri’s homegrown plants, pick out some favorites and start gardening.