University of Maryland Extension

Part 6: The Present


Definitions of "Native Plant"

What is meant by the term "native plant"?  A good native plant definition has to be concise enough to be useful, but must touch upon several elements:


Here in North America most definitions refer to the arrival of Europeans.  The definition cannot currently be reset to the time of arrival of the Original Americans because

  1. We lack written descriptions, or even oral history, from the time of settlement of the Original Americans.

  2. When the Original Americans arrived on the East Coast of North America, now thought to be about 19,000 years ago, the earth was experiencing a glacial maximum.  Maryland was part of the boreal forest ecosystem.  Even if we had accurate records of the flora of the time, it would not be the flora that would occur here naturally today.


Almost all plants are native to someplace.  Exceptions to this occur when a plant type has been artificially developed through cross-species hybridization, artificial mutation of the DNA through the use of mutagenic chemicals, or genetically modified via gene splicing techniques.

When someone tells you that a particular plant or plant species is native, that only tells the listener that it was the result of result of natural evolutionary processes.  But where did those processes occur? 

Scale Down the Lingo

Scale is important and up to the speaker/writer.  Be warned, however, it is possible to mislead an audience when using this authority. 

At the largest scale, any plant product that has not been genetically modified can be correctly presented as a native plant.  A pot of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) could be labeled "native plant", even here in Maryland.  After all, all plant species come from somewhere.  exceptions would be those plants that come from laboratories or hybridization programs. Obviously this would be a misleading use of the phrase.  

Similarly, one might say that inkberry is native to the United States, and that would be correct, but potentially misleading, for there are many areas in the U.S. where it does not occur naturally.  One might say inkberry is native to Maryland, and that would also be technically correct, but misleading in the same way.  Inkberry is native to the Eastern Coastal Plain (a Level III ecoregion designation).  That's a more accurate statement, but can still be misleading.  A more helpful characterization of inkberry would be to say that it's native to fresh water wetlands and wetland perimeters of the Eastern Coastal Plain.  When speaking to someone who wants to have a low input, sustainable landscape, then this is the information they need to hear.

For the sake of brevity, we normally say the "to..." part just at the beginning of a paper or presentation.  If we are in a conversation with other people who are all working with plants in the same region, we typically omit the "to..." part completely.  Unfortunately this leads to the bad habit of omitting it where it is actually needed, as when introducing the concept of native plants to interns, or when giving a tour of a native gardening project.

Existing Definitions

Here are three federal definitions for native plant:

Executive Order 11987: “ ‘Native species’ means all species of plants and animals naturally occurring, either presently or historically, in any ecosystem of the United States.”

The Federal Native Plant Conservation Committee (1994) defines a native as a plant species "that occurs naturally in a particular region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions."

The National Park Service states that “Native species are defined as all species that have occurred or now occur as a result of natural processes on lands designated as units of the national park system. Native species in a place are evolving in concert with each other.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses “Native. With respect to a particular ecosystem, a species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred or currently occurs in that ecosystem.”

In an attempt to better understand the reasoning behind these definitions of "native plant,  we'll begin with a presentation about the impact humans have had on the flora of our area since their arrival about 20,000 years ago.  Keep a printed copy of the above definitions handy as you watch this video, do you think each definition captures the important concepts?

The intermission between these videos presents the opportunity to interject a puzzler for you:

Suppose you were selecting plants for a native garden just east of Worcester County. Using the arrival of the Original Americans as the basis for defining which species are native to the area, which plant species would you consider native?  How would your selection influence whether the new garden was a low input, sustainable landscape project?  The answer will appear in the next lesson.

Exercises like the following one get you to study and learn not by memorizing, but by building connections between what you already know and what you are currently reading.


Read the Federal Highway Administration's thoughtful discussion on the elements of a native plant definition (click here).  Print the definition out and grab a pen and highlighter.  Tie components of the text into things you have learned in this course and elsewhere.

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