Native plant consumption in the US

Fuelled by consumer demand and mandated by legislation, native plant consumption in the US is growing but it’s a protracted process.

Echinacea purpurea

According to Debbie Hamrick, founding publisher of FloraCulture International, the native plant ‘movement’ isn’t popular with the nursery and greenhouse industry. As entrepreneurs, they generally dislike rules and regulations but over the past few years, they have had to conform to state legislation that mandates the use of native plants for projects and/or banning the production of popular nursery species (eg. Berberis) that have encroached on native plant species in the wild.

“Plants native to the continental United States seem to be taking a greater market share of landscape plant sales for American consumers. The trajectory is slow and steady. Nationally, 10-17% of nursery plant production is comprised of native plant species based on voluntary industry surveys. In my home state of North Carolina, native plants make up about 14.2% of nursery plant production, which is about $29 million in farm gate value. Many American native plants have horticultural value and have been used in European gardens for centuries. Species like the perennials Aquilegia canadensis, Echinacea purpurea or Rudbeckia laciniata, the vine Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and the stately tree Liriodendron tulipifera are well known”, writes Hamrick.

Hamrick explains that in her native state of North Caroline, in the mid-2000s a land conservation group estimated that for every person who relocated there, they lost about one hectare of land that was converted from either farmland or forest to provide housing and social infrastructure. “In 2023 alone, 140,000 new residents moved here. As a result, we lost a lot of land to development. Our state has significant biodiversity that many wish to preserve. For instance, 564 native bee species, many of them dependent on specific plants. Native plant proponents see the loss of wildlife habitat as dire.” explains Hamrick

Subsequently, environmental groups now view the 32 million ha of US cultivated landscapes as a biodiversity opportunity and have therefore started promoting the use of more native plants. However to date, US nurserymen and growers have generally avoided the complexities of native species as they are tricky to propagate, don’t lend themselves to standardised nursery production systems, and don’t look the part at point of sale for consumers. “If natives are to grow in importance, nurseries must be convinced that they will make their money. While small native plant nurseries are starting up, their limited supply doesn’t impact the market beyond a local area.” She added that where growers and nurseries paid attention to making their firm more profitable by adopting differentiation strategies that resulted in higher quality crops, they achieved greater market prices.

The offering is currently homogenous, dubbed ‘Generica america’ as the landscapes tend to look the same no matter what region of the country. Though, research shows that biodiversity is key, requiring many different plants for the structural complexity and timing of available resources for native wildlife species. “That means flowers with nectar and pollen when bees, moths and butterflies are present, the plant genera necessary for a food source for butterflies and moths in their larval forms, and plants with fruit and seed for birds and mammals” explains Hamrick.

North Carolina state legislature passed a law in 2023, mandating the use of native plants for certain projects that are funded with state funding. Hamrick explained that the industry managed to amend the bill, allowing for both native plants, but also cultivars of native plants – the so-called ‘nativars’. The latter are legal if they have not been bred to curtail the use of plants for wildlife, eg double or pollenless flowers are not be allowed. Amending the bill also means that cultivars bred for better disease resistance are better in terms of combatting new diseases and insects, such as vascular streak dieback (Ceratobasidium theobromae) on Cercis canadensis, or ambrosia beetles (Scolytinae and Platypodinae) which affect native plants.

Hamrick explains that native plants will not survive, unless there is investment to improve disturbed soils in the landscape. Hampered by misleading and often incorrect statements, regarding native plants and their care, proponents tend to underestimate the science, complexity of native plant communities and the wildlife and ecosystems that rely upon them. Native planting requires a different, pro-active approach where soil health is the first priority. Nurseries also need to be supported in terms of lead time for order fulfilment to provide for native planting schemes. “Nurseries need to know in advance the number of plants required for large-scale projects in order to build up enough stock”, says Hamrick. Though, government initiated projects can be an issue as in North Carolina, they are unable to enter growing contracts in the two to four-year advance timeframe needed for nurseries build up sufficient stock.

She ends by explaining that native plants are not the panacea, though with a different attitude both in terms of growing, care and planting, they can become a profitable part of a nursery’s assortment. “Sometimes, mandates may not be all bad”, she said.