How To Choose Native Trees
Native trees and native shrubs are integral to maintaining the functional status of our landscape. Native species provide food, nesting, security, and ecological functions that our birds, pollinators, insects, mammals, and watersheds depend on. Indeed it is what they have adapted to thrive on.
Native trees provide an advantage for the homeowner as well. They are already adapted to your local growing conditions. Native species require less maintenance. They are more resilient to local pests and require less watering and fertilizer.
Native trees will be cold hardy in your location, heat tolerant, and adapted to your length of daylight and growing season. In short, native trees are easier to care for, and you are more likely to establish them successfully.
However, the concept can get a bit too generalized. Sequoias are native trees in the US, but not native in Florida. To successfully choose and plant native species, especially native trees, you need to drill down a little. Let’s take a look.
What Makes a Tree “Native”?
The idea of a native tree seems pretty obvious at first blush, but ask questions, and you’ll find differing answers. Was it here before European colonization? Does it grow here without being planted, i.e., naturally reproducing? Is it native to the United States or only native to North Carolina?
We can define a native tree as one that is:
- Adapted to and typically found in your local area.
- Found in similar conditions to the site you are considering.
- Not a human- introduced species.
If you live in Florida or much of the American Southeast, the Southern live oak is a native tree. Longleaf Pine can be a good native choice for those in the southern coastal plain. If you live in Appalachia, river birch, sugar maples, or beech may be native trees for you. It varies with your location.
Naturalized vs. Invasive – What’s the Difference?
Some confusion may arise in the difference between invasive and naturalized species. Both were brought to a new area by people, but one is okay, and the other is harmful.
The term ‘invasive species’ is generally used to define an introduced organism–whether on purpose or by accident–reproducing in the wild and causing ecological harm. Outcompeting and replacing native species, for example, is often the problem. Importantly, what is invasive in one location may be native to another.
‘Naturalized’ species are not native but do not pose a significant threat of altering the landscape. They can reproduce and survive, but are not taking over.
Be careful to select native species and avoid planting those categorized in your area as invasive. If in doubt, your state government compiles a list. Search online for invasive species and your state’s name.
How to Plant Native Trees
Now that we know what a native tree is, let’s pick a few to plant! Consider the following points to make your native tree selection easier and improve your chances of success.
Match the Soils and Drainage
A quick look around your local area will reveal that some species grow in the uplands and some down in the wetlands. When choosing a native tree, or any plant for that matter, match the plant to the conditions you will plant it in. This is known as the ‘Right plant-Right place.’ Don’t plant a wetland tree in a dry upland location, or vice versa, as it will be challenging to keep it alive.
If you live in an area with significant elevation changes, consider that when choosing a native tree. A home in the valley might not be suitable for a species that is native only ten miles away but grows in semi-alpine conditions. The term native refers to more than just distance on a map.
Consider salt tolerance near the beach, sunlight at your proposed planting site, everyday factors like growth habits, the formation of fruits, nuts, or cones, and even how sturdy the tree is.
Cottonwoods grow quickly but can make a mess in the yard. Silver maples also grow well and tolerate wet sites, but large limbs are prone to dropping in the wind. A walnut planted near your driveway might become aggravating as it matures.
Keep notes on your site conditions and compare them to the needs of the trees you are shopping for. Matching the right tree to the right site will give you and your new tree a big leg up and likely reward you with a healthy, happy tree you can enjoy for a long time.