Updated date:

Native Plants: How to Understand Official Definitions

Jule Romans has been gardening with native wildflowers for over 15 years. She loves to share knowledge about her favorite native plants.

Native plants support wildlife, but what is the official definition of a native plant?

Native plants support wildlife, but what is the official definition of a native plant?

What Is a Native Plant, Officially?

A native plant is one that has evolved naturally in its location WITHOUT direct human intervention.

The definition of the term "native plant" can seem very complicated, but there are some elements that help to keep it simple.

Multiple Perspectives on Native Plants

Many national agencies, regional organizations and international foundations have helped to define and promote native plants. Each has its own mission to promote and preserve native plants, vines, and trees. Each of these has its own detailed perspective on the definition of a native plant. In most cases, agencies agree on a few basic points.

The Three Common Elements

  • Native Plants Have Evolved Naturally
  • Native Plants Are integral In a Location
  • Native Plants Developed Without Human Intervention

The "official" definitions of native plants that come from official agencies all seem to have these basic elements in common. They all agree on a few fundamental points. At the end of this article, you'll find further information about these official definitions. For now, though, let's look at these common factors more closely.

A native plant is:

  • Naturally Occurring, or Indigenous
  • Regional or Local
  • Integral to a Native Plant Community
  • Present Before the European Settlement of North America
  • Not Introduced Through Human Activity

A Native Plant Must Have Evolved Naturally

When we say that a plant evolved naturally, we mean that it is naturally occurring, and indigenous to a given location. Another way to explain this is to say that a native plant is:

  • Naturally Occurring (Indigenous)
  • Regional or Local

A native plant is one that has developed and flourished based on the ordinary soil, moisture, sunlight, and temperature in a certain area.

Native Plants Adapt and Evolve

Flowering plants, vines, and trees all develop adaptations based on their environments. Native plants are those that adapted over time to survive and even thrive based solely on the qualities of their environment.

Native plants contain within their genetic makeup the ability to thrive in cooperation with insects, rain, wind, snow, heat, drought, and any of the other conditions that may be common in a region.

Purple Coneflower is a wide-ranging native plant that is particularly good for bees and butterflies.

Purple Coneflower is a wide-ranging native plant that is particularly good for bees and butterflies.

What Does "Naturally Occurring" Mean?

Some native plants are adapted to conditions across an entire continent.

Purple Coneflower is a good example of a wide-ranging native plant. Purple Coneflower evolved in the prairies an open grasslands of North America. Several varieties of Purple Coneflower developed in sunny, hot locations; other types developed in temperate zones.

Some native plants are adapted to very specific conditions in smaller areas. The Lady's Slipper Orchid is an example of a native plant that evolved in the shaded woodlands of mixed-hardwood forests. This plant adapted to the shade, soil, and moisture associated with these areas. It will not normally thrive outside these conditions.

The Meaning of Indigenous

The word indigenous means "occurring naturally in a particular place."

Neither of the above-mentioned native plants were deliberately placed in their ecosystems. They simply began there. In fact, many native plants existed long before humans ever entered their location. That is why we refer to them as indigenous.

A Native Plant Must Have Evolved Naturally . . . Within a Location

In native plants, as in real estate, location is everything. Locations used to define native plants can be as large as a continent or as small as a single acre. We must define a native plant based on a careful examination of its location.

  • A Native Plant Can Be Regional or Local
  • A Native Plant is Integral to Native Plant Community

What Does "Location" Mean for Native Plants?

Keep in mind that native plants exist all over the world, in every region where there is local vegetation. North American native plants often receive the greatest share of attention.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will use North American native plants as our starting point. Later, we will examine how the definition of "native plant" can be applied elsewhere.

Regional and Local Native Plants

Even within a single continent, the plants that may be considered native to one region can be invasive or alien in another.

For example, a plant that is native to Texas may NOT be native to certain regions in California, and vice versa. There are many state-level organizations that address this concern in their definitions of native plants. Thus, it may be easiest to keep our focus on North America at first.

Native Plants Contribute to Local Ecosystems

Native plants are important contributors to native ecosystems. We can organize and name native plant communities based on the plants, landforms, and weather events that occur there.

This is a key concept in understanding the definition of a native plant.

A true native plant is not simply one with a native name. A true native plant is one that is an integral part of a native plant community.

Native plants can become adapted to and even dependent upon events like wildfires and drought or even windstorms or floods. There are several species of trees that require intense fire and heat to break the seedcoats on the seeds that they drop. The fire, instead of destroying, is what allows seedlings to germinate.

Native Plant Communities Are Integral to Locations

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Recommended for You

"A native plant community is a group of native plants that interact with each other and with their environment."

The communities can be classified with terms that are similar to the names of ecoregions or biomes. For example, there may be native plant communities that exist as:

  • Oak savannahs
  • Pine forests
  • Marshes
  • Seasonally flooded swamp forest
  • Tallgrass prairies
  • Shortgrass prairies

If these words all sound confusing, don't worry. There are many local resources to help you define what is a native plant in your specific area.

A Native Plant Must Have Evolved Naturally Within a Location . . . Without Human Intervention

Native plants were not introduced through human activity and were present prior to the European settlement of North America.

This is perhaps the simplest part of the definition of a native plant, at least as far as North America is concerned.

When we consider native plants in other parts of the world, the idea of settlement becomes a bit more complicated. There are slight variations in this part of the definition of native plants for Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Europe, and other continents.

  • A native plant is one that was present before the European settlement of North America.
  • A native plant is one that was not introduced through human activity.

Native Plants Were Present Before the European Settlement of North America

When settlers came to the United States in the 1600s, they brought plants with them. Over the decades, as more and more people came from all over the world, more plants arrived.

Some of these plants were deliberately introduced as ornamental garden plants. Others came by accident. In either case, these plants spread seeds and propagated across the continent.

None of those plants can be considered a native plant, even if they have grown on their own for hundreds of years. When we work to define native plants, we must consider only those plants that were present prior to the time of European settlement.

Native Plants Were Not Introduced Through Human Activity

In other countries, the same concept applies, except that human settlement goes back much farther. In that case, there is usually some form of dividing line between what is considered outside settlement.

You don't have to become a history buff to determine the status of the plants in your garden. Fortunately, many agencies have complied lists of suggested native plants for regions all across the world.

Organizations exist to help define what is a native plant in Australia and the United States. Native plants are also promoted in arctic regions, Africa, and other international locations.

Official Definitions of Native Plants

Let's take a look at a few different organizations' official definitions of native plants.

North American Native Plants

In May of 1977, The US Federal Government passed Executive Order 11987, which provided this definition of a native plant:

"Native species means all species of plants and animals naturally occurring, either presently or historically, in any ecosystem of the United States."

Since that time, the definition of the term "Native Plant" has undergone a few refinements.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines it this way:

"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."

Native Plants and Ecosystems

This perspective is supported by the US Forest Service:

"Native plants are defined as all indigenous terrestrial and aquatic plant species that evolved naturally in a defined native ecosystem."

Native Plants and Human Intervention

The United States National Arboretum defines a native plant as one that:

"Occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention." [We] consider the flora present at the time Europeans arrived in North America as the species native to the eastern United States."

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center suggests that:

"North American native plants, [be] defined as those that existed here without human introduction."

Some native plants have become extinct in their original locations. When a native plant no longer exists in a specific location, that plant is said to be extirpated. That means that even though the entire species is not extinct, it has been eliminated in a certain area.

Selected Sources

  • The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. "Native Plants of North America. <wildflower.org>.
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.) "Native Plant Encyclopedia." <dnr.state.mn.us>.
  • National Archives. (2016, August) "Executive Order 11987--Exotic Organisms --1977" Federal Register Executive Orders. National Archives. <archives.gov/federal-register>.
  • National Invasive Species Information Center. "Executive Order 13112 - 1. Definitions--1999." US Department of Agriculture. <invasivespeciesinfo.gov>.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jule Romans

Related Articles