Wildflower vs Native Plant: What’s the Difference?

Many wildflower seed mixes include species that are from all over the world. Generic wildflower mixes won’t provide the same ecological benefits as a mix of species that are native to your area.

Browse seed catalogs or walk into almost any big box store’s garden center and there is a good chance that you’ll find one or more seed mixes for sale that are labeled as “wildflower blends.” Some are even marketed as good for pollinator gardens. But just because something is a wildflower doesn’t mean it is a native plant or that it is the best choice for a pollinator garden.

What’s the difference between a wildflower and a native plant?

The difference between a wildflower and a native plant can be a little confusing at first. After all, the term “wildflower” implies that the plant is growing in the wild, and native plants are plants that grow in the wild. So, that would make them the same thing, right? No, not exactly.

In one of my early math classes, I was taught the phrase “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” In other words, a rectangle is a 4-sided shape where the opposite sides are parallel and all of the corners are 90 degree angles. A square is a special type of rectangle where all the sides are of equal length. The difference between a wildflower and a native plant is similar.

Wildflowers are plants that grow in the wild without having to be tended or cared for by people. When we think of a wildflower we are usually thinking of an herbaceous plant – not a vine, tree, or shrub. Typically, wildflowers also haven’t been modified from their wild form. In other words, they aren’t a cultivar.

Native plants have evolved in an area and developed complex ecological relationships with the other plants and animals that inhabit the same ecosystem.

Native plants can be thought of as a specialized type of wildflower in the same way that a square is a specialized type of rectangle. What makes a native plant species different from a generic wildflower species is 1) where that species evolved and 2) the specialized relationships it has developed with the organisms in the ecosystem where it evolved. In other words, a wildflower species may have originated from anywhere in the world, but a native plant species was always naturally found in the area where it is located and has all the ecological relationships that come from always having been part of that ecosystem.

Another reason why discussing native plants can be a little confusing is because “native” is a relative term. We said that a native plant species has always been found naturally in the area where it is located, but how big of an area or region are we talking about? For example, every plant in the world evolved on planet Earth. If we use Earth as our “area” then all wildflowers are native plants.

Obviously, “Earth” is taking things too far and using too big of an “area.” However, people commonly use the term “native” to refer to areas of many different sizes and scales – native to North America, native to the eastern U.S., native to Kentucky, native to the southern Appalachian Mountains, native to sandstone glades on the Cumberland Piedmont Plateau, etc. There are many plants that are native to one state, but not another, or are native to part of a state, but not the whole state. That’s why it is also important to take into account the ecological relationships that have developed with that species.

Why does it matter?

The ecological relationships that have developed involving native plants is why it is so important to plant species native to your location, not just generic wildflowers. The story behind monarch caterpillars and milkweed is one example of how important those relationships can be.

The difference between a wildflower and a native plant matters because of those ecological relationships. When a bunch of different species have evolved together over thousands of years, they form complex relationships with each other. And in nature, just like with us, relationships matter.

For example, plants form mycorrhizal relationships with fungi in the soil. Some plants grow best when they are in close proximity to certain other species of plants. A plant may develop toxins to try to prevent insect herbivores from eating it. Some caterpillars, or other insect herbivores, may evolve ways to sequester the plant toxins and use those chemicals as protection against their predators. Some species of bees have larvae that can only eat pollen from a single species of plant. Songbirds may rely on being able to gather caterpillars from a plant in order to feed their nestlings. Many species of plants rely on animals to move their seeds to new locations. The list of relationships goes on and on and becomes ever more complex, branching off and intertwining in all kinds of different directions.

In some ways, it is similar to someone whose family has lived in the same area for multiple generations compared to someone who just moved to that area. It will take time for the new person to develop relationships in the community and those relationships will likely never be as deep or complex as the person whose relationships and connections go back generations. You also can’t just pluck someone out of the family who has lived there forever, replace that person with someone new, and expect everything to continue as if nothing has changed.

For ecosystems, it takes time – often many thousands of years – for those deep, complex, intertwining relationships to develop. Native plants are a key component of those relationships. Those deep, complex, intertwining relationships simply don’t exist with new plant species which are introduced to an area, even if the new species can grow as a wildflower. So, when we choose plants that are native to our area, we are supporting the local ecosystem with all those complex, interconnected relationships. That’s something that a generic wildflower can’t do.

Your state’s native plant society is a wonderful resource for learning which species are native to your location and the best places to find regionally adapted native seeds or plants.

Where can you find native plant seeds?

Your best bet for finding native plant seeds for your area is to contact your state’s native plant society. Just do an internet search for “ native plant society.” Most states have a native plant society and most of them have a good idea of the best sources of native seeds for your area.

Yes, you can do a generic internet search for “native plant seeds” and find several native seed suppliers from across the country, many of whom do mail order. However, not all of the species offered by those suppliers will be native to where you live. Your state’s native plant society will be able to help you learn what is native to your region.

Also, if you can find seeds sustainably sourced from your general region, then they will often be better adapted to your climate and do better than seeds sourced from further away. Again, your state’s native plant society is going to be the best first step you can take to find out what is locally available.

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Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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