Native plants are those species that appear naturally in a given region, habitat or ecosystem without human intervention. Most botanical, plant and native species societies and organizations consider the arrival of Europeans in North America as the demarcation point for native flora, especially in the eastern United States. Native plants include all plant life—mosses, shrubs, flowers, trees and vines. A non-native plant is one that was introduced, directly or indirectly, by humans and has become established. Invasive plant species have slowly eliminated many native plants and threaten many others. Non-native plants continue to be imported.
- Learn the language of botany. You cannot recognize, describe, name or group plants without a basic knowledge of the discipline’s nomenclature. Start with the basics, like leaf parts and types. For example, a leaf has a base, blade, petiole, margin and apex. Knowing these basics is necessary in order to take the next step, which is noting relative lengths, sizes and shapes of leaf parts to distinguish different plants.
- Study the basic physiology of plants. Most plants, however diverse, have at least some common characteristics, such as stems, flowers, leaves, roots and fruits. Being able to physically differentiate these qualities in any plant is fundamental.
- Research the tools available to assist you. You’ll inevitably settle on a combination of sources, including books, botanical dictionaries, photographs, professional and fraternal societies, websites, photographs, botanical keys and field guides.
- Familiarize yourself with the rudiments of plant-naming techniques. Swedish naturalist Carolus Linneaus, for example, developed a system for naming plants known as the binomial (“two names”) lexicon. The first name refers to a plant’s genus, the second to its species. Families contain subsets of similar genera and usually end in –aceae, i.e., Myrtaceae. Genera consist of similar or closely related species. Species are groups of similar plants able to breed among themselves. Genus and species names are used together, such as Eucalyptus racemosa. Common names are non-scientific and applied to species, such as red maple. The fact that species usually have more than one common name can be confusing.
- Visit your library or online native plant sites as a primer to familiarizing yourself with your state’s or region’s native flora. You may be surprised to learn that many of the plants and flowers you grew up with and see every day actually are not native to the area. For example, according to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, 800 of Michigan’s 2,600 plant species are non-native, some of which cause serious environmental problems. The DNR says that Michigan has lost 46 native plant species in recent years and currently has 51 endangered species. In addition, 23 percent of Michigan’s native plant species are considered at risk from non-native species.
- Explore your surroundings and put to work the knowledge you’ve gained.