About Native Plants
What is a Native Plant?
A native plant is a species that occurs naturally in a given location, either because it evolved there or dispersed to that location without benefit of human activity.
It is only meaningful to speak of native plants with reference to a specific location. For example, one can speak of plants that are native to Pennsylvania, or to the Delaware Valley region, or even to Bucks County. While the list of native plants (i.e., the native flora) indigenous to each of these locations would be very similar, they would not be identical due to variations in the climate, geology and soil types that are found there.
While the native status of a plant species may be delineated in different ways, the native flora of our region—and at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, in particular—has evolved to survive exactly in this locale through time and place, and constitutes a unique and irreplaceable natural heritage that is worthy of our stewardship.
Plants that grow in proximity to one another in a given locale form a plant community. Plant species assemble themselves into plant communities not at random, but in response to ecological causes. These causes can be abiotic (e.g., temperature, precipitation and soil type) and/or biotic (e.g., dispersers, pollinators and absence of competitors). If two species grow together in the same plant community, it is probably because they share similar ecological requirements. If a plant community is to persist, its constituent species must not only be able to survive individually, but reproduce as well.
Plant communities reoccur throughout the landscape in recognizable forms. Under the classification system outlined in Terrestrial and Palustrine Plant Communities of Pennsylvania, about 100 distinguishable plant communities have been identified in our state. Just as with individual native plant species, plant communities represent a part of our natural heritage and are worthy of preservation.
It is important to note that plant communities are dynamic, not static. They undergo continual change due to short- or long-term disturbances caused by humans, fire or weather (including climate change), and through the progressive process known as plant succession—which involves a gradual change over time in the type of species found in any given locale. This creates challenges for those who want to preserve plant communities.
Native plants and plant communities are part of the web of life. The ability of plants to produce carbohydrates through photosynthesis places plants at the base of the terrestrial food chain. This same photosynthetic process also replenishes oxygen in the atmosphere upon which all other forms of life survive.
Plants are essential components of healthy and functioning ecosystems. Plants are not generally interchangeable within an ecosystem because they have complex and essential ecological relationships with other components of the ecosystem. These relationships underscore a wide variety of important ecological services that the environment depends upon, such as nutrient recycling, hydrologic recycling, and carbon sequestration.
For humans, plants have been the source of a wide variety of resources, including food, building materials and medications. Apart from these practical considerations, plants and plant communities are also a source of enjoyment, enrichment, recreation and renewal.
It is important that we preserve plant biodiversity at the local level.
Plant preservation is not just a problem in exotic places like the tropical rainforest, but here at home as well. A recent international survey found that almost 30 percent of plant species found in the U.S. are at risk. Several hundred species of Pennsylvania’s native flora have been identified as “species of special concern.”
At the Preserve, about 10 percent (60+ species) of the over 700 species found here are listed as “species of special concern.” The Preserve holds these plants, along with the rest of the Living Museum Collection, as a public trust—growing and displaying them for the public to learn about and enjoy.