How to Identify Native Plants


Gardeners and landscapers are discovering what conservationists knew all along: native plants, once established, require less water, fertilizer and general effort than do non-native species. Native plants lived in places for generations before they were covered with lawns, perennial borders, vegetable gardens, buildings or parking lots. They are, happily, becoming more widely available as property owners invest in rain gardens, wetland gardens, woodland gardens and prairie gardens that reflect their area's natural heritage. Learn to identify and use native plants; they improve your landscape and reduce its carbon footprint.

Step 1

Take walks in wild places--the mountains, seashores, a National Park or wildlife refuge. Chances are that much of the vegetation is native. Notice flower shapes and colors, shapes of leaves and sizes of plants. Native plants may show more differences in size or coloring within the same plant group because they have evolved over generations. Introduced species tend to be more uniform in size and coloring.

Step 2

Find a local conservationist to show you his rain garden, restored prairie or project in a local park or arboretum. Ask which plants are native, and find out why certain plants were chosen for the project.

Step 3

Join a Native Plant Society and participate in projects it offers. Dozens of organizations provide information about and sources for plants. Some provide assistance and incentives. Just some examples: Mid-Atlantic gardeners have a wonderful resource in the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay's Bayscapes program. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources operates a "Native Prairie Bank" to provide credits for preservation.

Step 4

Find a reliable data source; you will never remember all of the varieties of native plants. The wildflower data base at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at Austin lists trees, shrubs, grasses and ferns as well as herbaceous plants. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides distribution maps for each species in its data. Check your state's native plant society, too; many maintain useful catalogs and instructions for rain gardens and other special gardens.

Step 5

Walk in the wild regularly, taking notes and drawing pictures in a notebook. When you arrive home, look up and label what you've discovered. You may start only knowing what a trillium looks like but soon you will easily identify dozens of plants just by observation.

Tips and Warnings

  • Avoid collecting native plants in the wild. Many plants are protected and many public areas prohibit any collection. That's why you take the notebook or digital camera. Not all native plants are considered equally desirable in this day of city-sized lots. Some need too much room or impractical care--prairie grasses that must be burned for renewal each year come to mind. Others, like Queen Anne's lace or purple loosestrife are aggressive growers that, if not classified as "noxious" by law are certainly too invasive to make good neighbors.

Things You'll Need

  • Notebook and pencils or a digital camera
  • Native plant guide, book or database


  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: A Guide to Native Plant Gardening
  • Plant Native: How to Naturescape

Who Can Help

  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Native Plant Database
  • Plant Native: Native Plant Nursery Directory
  • Michigan Botany Club: List of Native Plant Societies of the United States and Canada
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Plants Database
  • King County, Washington:Native Plant Resources
Keywords: identify native plants, special gardens, landscaping native plants

About this Author

Chicago native Laura Reynolds has been writing for 40 years. She attended American University (D.C.), Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois Chicago and has a B.S. in communications (theater). Originally a secondary school communications and history teacher, she's written one book and edited several others. She has 30 years of experience as a local official, including service as a municipal judge.