Ecotype Native Plant Selection

So why use locally grown native plants in restorations? Naturalist, John Muir understood the underlying reason when he said, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.” I believe Muir was referring to the fact that flora do not grow in isolation from the other organisms around them, rather they are essentially connected to the other living things in their habitat. These interactions enable organisms to co-evolve as contributing members of their ecosystem. Native and invasive plants do not co-evolve with one another but rather compete for the ecosystems resources. In previous posts, I’ve written about invasive and native plants. I’ve defined an invasive plant as an organism that has been inadvertently or purposely introduced by humans, whereas, a native plant is one that has grown and evolved naturally in North America in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human intervention. More specifically, a native plant is one that has grown in communities of a particular geographic region with other plant species all whom have adapted to having similar soil, moisture, and weather conditions, as well as evolved defenses to protect themselves from diseases and pests found in their habitat. These local or regionally grown plants and seeds are considered local ecotypes.

Natural landscapers and prairie restorationists advocate the use of plants and seeds in native plant gardening derived from local ecotype materials. Local ecotype plant materials originate in, and are native to, a 250 mile radius in one’s geographic region. Others believe that the geographic range for local ecotype is smaller than a 250 mile radius. In fact, some if not most, restoration ecologists believe a more accurate geographic range is established by utilizing the concept that geographic regions have ecological boundaries or ecoregions. These ecologists/biologists believe it is better to use plant materials from one’s ecoregion, even if it is outside your state, rather than to use a source from a different geographic region inside your state. Nature Conservancy’s map of Terrestrial and Marine Ecoregions within the U.S. is best framework of determining one’s ecoregion and the corresponding ecotype plant materials to be used in a restoration project.

Nature Conservancy's Terrestrial and Marine Ecoregion Map

Doug Tallamay, author of Bringing Nature Home, points out that native ecotype plants insure the biodiversity of a local region through their support of the insect population, which ultimately sustains the native fauna. As informed gardeners, we can help to create a sustainable and biologically diverse ecosystem by selecting and installing the appropriate ecotype plants.  These plants are suitable for one’s ecoregion, rather than the commonly known hardiness zones and help to attract more native wildlife, which ultimately helps to restore, preserve, and sustain the habitat. So as you design your prairie garden and select the native plants, choose wisely plant ecotype materials because every single plant in “…nature is attached to the rest of the world!”

Native plant suppliers within a 250 mile radius of northeastern Illinois:


Tallamy, Douglas A. Bringing Nature Home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. Oregon: Timber Press, Inc. 2007, Print.

Nowak, Mariette. “Why Hardiness Zone, Native Ranges, and Ecoregions?” Wild Ones, 1 Feb.2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

“Native Plants-Getting it Right.” Wild Ones, Lake to Prairie Chapter, 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

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