Gardeners have always chosen native plants and their hybrids because they do well in gardens in their area. Often, gardeners search out these plants because they demand less care in the garden. A botanical expedition into wild country to classify and pot up native plants is not an option for most, but identification of native plants has been underway for many years.
The colonists of the 18th century landed on a green continent isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. They brought with them a scientific curiosity that led to more than a century of exploration. During the colonial period, self-trained botanists like John Bartram and Jane Colden cataloged plants throughout the colonies. The Lewis and Clark travels at the beginning of the 19th century and the Wilkes Expedition mid-century, brought back native plants that were later identified and cataloged by botanists like William Brackenridge, William Rich and Asa Gray. Their work remains available for native and heritage gardeners in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and National Botanic Garden.
The founding of the United States fortunately coincided with the Age of Reason. Americans had a new continent to explore and the results of those explorations inspired the founding of collections of herbaria, botanic gardens and museum collections all over the country. These collections and university programs in botany and agriculture preserved a record of native plants as settlement, agriculture and importation of non-native species transformed the country's flora. Today, they provide some of the best references for native plant identification. Many have education programs in special and native gardens.
Native plants might have become mere packets of seeds and drawings in museum drawers if not for an American conservation movement that blossomed with the founding of the first national parks at the beginning of the 20th century. The parks themselves provided living laboratories and examples for wetland, woodland, alpine and prairie gardens. Today they provide wild places where gardeners can find plants native to their area. By the last quarter of the century, government organizations such as the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency had established databases and programs designed to aid in identification and use of native plants.
Private Interest Groups
Before the advent of television and the personal computer, Americans joined organizations based on personal interests or community service. Garden club special-interest groups became Native Plant societies. These societies provide education and encourage the use of native plants among their membership. Many state societies now have websites with links to native plant and special garden resources.
Universities, conservation groups and governmental units like school districts and counties have combined to offer resources for identification and use of native plants. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin offers an interactive database full of native trees, shrubs, grasses, ferns and forbs that can be accessed for each state. University extension services also provide information. Many have demonstration projects like Rutgers Cooperative Extension's projects in watershed forest buffer restoration. In addition to restoration activities, these groups often have botanists who help gardeners identify plants.