What’s the Difference?
The question of what is a native plant is many-fold and the subject of debate not only between the so-called experts but also among plant enthusiasts. With that in mind, it can only be assumed that the following is my interpretation of what is a native plant. A native plant is defined as a species that occurs within a specific habitat. The habitat can be a general and broad classification such as the “Eastern Deciduous Forest,” which would be an ecological region or Biome, or it could be interpreted more specifically such as a swamp which would be its niche.
To be even more specific, you could refer to the Atchafalaya Swamp which would refer to a plant’s provenance. It’s these options that create a lot of confusion. Let’s use bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, as an example. That particular species is native to the Blackland prairies and into the Hill country on Blackland soils, therefore it’s a Texas native plant. It is not, however, a native to East Texas, which is where you’d find the Sand Bluebonnet, Lupinus subcarnosis. But Lupinus texensis is widely used along roadsides throughout Texas in a more natural setting, thereby making it a wildflower in east Texas (or any other roadside throughout the state or the U.S.) when used that way.
A wildflower is easy to define-it’s any non-native plant being used in a natural or wild setting. Also, any native in its natural setting (other than a garden) that blooms is therefore considered a wildflower. People more often than not are referring to herbaceous plants when they use the term wildflower to include the occasional usage of a herbaceous plant in a garden setting.
A wonderful example that can be used to show the difference between what is a native wildflower and just wildflower is the program used in The Woodlands, Texas. The Woodlands has a wildflower program that incorporates a large number of exotic species so that they can have good diversity while at the same time fit into a management schedule that allows the wildflowers to be unmowed in the early months of spring.
Most species used are plants that are native to Texas and the U.S., but they also include adaptable plants from other parts of the world. It’s called a wildflower program because these plants are seeded out along the roadways throughout The Woodlands in a natural setting. There are a number of species that bloom during the same period of time that are native and have established themselves in these “plantings” on their own, one example being Salvia lyrata or Lyre Leaf Sage.
There are also a number of woody plants along the roadways in The Woodlands that make for a great example of when a native is a wildflower and vice versa. Take for instance the multitudes of Hawthorn species (Crataegus spp.) that one can find blooming in March while the roadsides are a blaze of color from the seeded out plants. The hawthorns aren’t only native to that part of the state, but are, in fact, remnants of the ecology once found there before development began. Because of the “wild setting”, they occur in and because they are rather showy when blooming they should be called native wildflowers. The California Poppies blooming below them, on the other hand, would be classified as non-native wildflowers.
While non-native wildflowers may be beautiful, problems arise when they multiply so rapidly that they overrun native wildflowers.
As you can see the subject of what are wildflowers and what are natives and what are native wildflowers can be complicated. If you’re looking to create a landscape that incorporates native wildflowers specifically found within your area, you may find a wildflower book for your area helpful in identifying those plants that you see there. Also, your county agent may be of great assistance. You may also find the Native Plant Society of Texas a helpful resource. NPSOT has chapters in 33 cities around Texas and maintains an office in Georgetown, Texas which can be reached at 512-238-0695 or by checking their website.
Several chapters maintain lists of Native plants found within 50 miles of where they are located. NPSOT websites can be found through most search engines using the keyword NPSOT. Good luck and good gardening.