Maiden hair fern and Blue-eyed Mary. Photo: Scott Woodbury

Grow Native! Glossary & FAQ

This glossary contains a list of terms related to native plants and native plant landscaping. This glossary is not exhaustive.

Jump to Categories of Plants, Ecological and Environmental Terms, Landscaping and Land Management Terms, Plant Physiology, Vegetative Morphology.

Read our Frequently Asked Questions.

CATEGORIES OF PLANTS 

Aggressive plant: A plant that, usually because of human-caused disturbances or introductions, spreads rapidly and can outcompete other plant species. Aggressive plants can be native or non-native, and they may be aggressive in some situations, but not others.

Cultivar: A plant selected for a certain trait; i.e. flower color, foliage color, fruit color, shape, size, pest resistance, growth habit, disease resistance, longer bloom times, stronger stems, etc. Cultivars are reproduced via cloned selections (e.g., leaf cuttings), from seeded strains (or lines) of local ecotypes, seedlings within one species with a particular trait, hybrids between two more species (or rarely, genera) maintained by asexual propagation, or genetic mainipulation at the cellular level in a lab.

Exotic: A plant not native to the continent in which it is now found. “Alien,” “introduced,” and “non-native” are synonyms.

Forb: A broad-leaved plant. Often used to describe wildflowers and other non-grass or non-sedge plants.

Genus: A scientifically designated group of related plants within a botanical family. It is the first word in a binomial scientific name. The word “genera” is the plural of “genus.” For example, Fagaceae is the botanical family to which the genera of oak and beech trees belong. Quercus is the genus name for oaks. The genus name is capitalized and italicized.

Hybrid: A plant created by cross-breeding two entirely different species to create a new plant. Hybrids occur in nature and also via intentional cross breeding by people. Hybrids can be created with native and non-native species. A hybrid is sometimes indicated by an X in its name. While rare, hybrids can occur between two genera of plants, as well as between species.

Invasive plant: An aggressive, non-native plant whose presence causes or is likely to cause economic harm or environmental harm. Invasive plants grow and reproduce rapidly.

Legume: A plant in the pea or bean family. For example, Baptisia (wild indigos), Cercis canadensis (redbud), and Desmodium spp. (sticktights) are legumes. Bacterial nodules on legume roots can fix nitrogen (transform gaseous nitrogen into nitrogen usable by the plant). 

Native plant: Originally occurs within a region as the result of natural processes and is adapted to local climate and soils. Native plants have co-evolved with native insects and wildlife and are critical to ecosystem functions. 

Naturalized plant: A non-native plant that does not need human help to reproduce and maintain itself over time in an area where it is not native.

Non-native plant: a plant introduced (intentionally or accidentally) to a new place or new type of habitat. Historically, most non-native plant introductions have resulted from human activities. Since non-native plants did not evolve locally over thousands of years, their presence can often have negative impacts on endemic ecosystems. The words “exotic,” “alien,” and “introduced” are synonyms for “non-native.”

Noxious weed: A plant that directly or indirectly causes damage to crops, livestock, poultry, irrigation, navigation, natural resources, public health, or the environment. In many states, the term “noxious” has a specific legal definition. Many states have official noxious weed lists and laws. Plants on these official lists are often non-native, invasive plants.

Nativar:  A cultivar derived from native parents and bred for a particular trait, typically resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Nativars may have sterile flowers and produce no seeds.

Species: A group of organisms that share a genetic heritage, are able to interbreed, and to create offspring that are also fertile. Scientific names for species are written as a binomial, with the genus name first followed by the species epithet. For example, Quercus alba is the scientific name for the white oak species. To denote a number of species within a genus, the abbreviation “spp.” is used. For example, wild indigos as a group may be referred to as “Baptisia spp.” Note: infraspecific taxa are subspecies, varieties, and forma—categories within species that indicate recurring variation. For example, Rudbeckia fulgida var. umbrosa and R. fulgida var. sullivantii are two different varieties of the orange coneflower species.

ECOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL TERMS 

Biophilia: A term coined by Dr. Edward O. Wilson who linked scientific studies of the brain to the ability of nature to heal, comfort, and inspire human beings.

Community Conservation: Efforts to protect biodiversity/open space with demonstrated commitment and participation by a local community.

Critical Root Zone (CRZ): An imaginary circle on the ground that corresponds with the “drip line” or “drip zone” of the tree.

Drip zone: The total area under a tree or shrub from the tips of branches from which rain drips to the ground.

Ecological site: A distinctive kind of land with specific soil and physical characteristics that differs from other kinds of land in its ability to produce a distinctive kind and amount of vegetation and its ability to respond similarly to management actions and natural disturbances.

Ecosystem services: The benefits of nature to people, households, communities, and economies. For example, wetlands retain and absorb water, which reduces flooding.

Facultative plant: A plant that can live under more than one specific environmental condition. For example, bur oaks can live in prairies and in bottomland forests.

Floodplain: An area of low-lying ground adjacent to a river or stream that is subject to flooding.

Genetic diversity: The total number of genetic characteristics within and among species. Genetic diversity can help species adapt to environmental changes and can be attributed to species survival. The variety of genetic characteristics within a species is a factor enabling natural selection to occur. Genetic diversity allows populations to adapt to environmental changes.

Host plant: A plant that provides food in the form of leaves or other plant parts to specific insect larvae. Note: Some butterflies and moths have established a dependent relationship with a particular host species and their larvae can feed only on that type of plant (such as monarchs and milkweed).

Interceptor zone: Area of vegetation above soil that intercepts precipitation.

Landform: A landform is a feature on the Earth’s surface that is part of the terrain. Mountains, hills, plateaus, and plains are types of landforms.

Plant community: A suite of plants that have similar environmental requirements and are often found growing together in the same specific natural community(ies). 

Obligate plant: A plant with an affinity to a specific natural community(ies). For example, pale purple coneflower grows in certain kinds of  prairies and glades. 

Permeable pavement: A variety of surfacing techniques for roads, parking lots, and pedestrian walkways that allows the infiltration of stormwater runoff.

Pioneer species: A plant that is an early colonizer of bare or disturbed ground. For example, Phytolacca americana (pokeweed) will appear soon after fires and Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) can spread quickly on land that has been disturbed.

Riparian corridor: Land along a river or stream. 

Shade zone: Area shaded from the sun for part or all of a day.

Soil biota: Life forms in soil such as bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, mites, spiders, insects, and earthworms. Soil biota consume organic matter and each other, making nutrients and energy available to plants.

Understory zone: The trees and shrubs growing under a forest canopy.

Watershed: An area of land that drains rain water or snow melt to one location, such as a stream, lake, or wetland.

LANDSCAPING AND LAND MANAGEMENT TERMS

Biofiltration Services: A process to purify air and water biologically with the aid of microorganisms, specifically bacteria. Common uses include processing wastewater, capturing harmful chemicals or silt from surface runoff, and microbiotic oxidation of contaminants in air.

Bioretention: A depressed landscape feature planted with suitable native vegetation that stores, filters, and infiltrates stormwater runoff.

Bioswale: A linear, shallow, planted depression that guides water as it moves through property, while also absorbing water and filtering contaminants.

Deadhead: Practice of removing faded flowers, generally with some kind of pruning tool. 

Design intent: Look and feel of a garden as envisioned by the designer and the client. Requires regular maintenance by adding, cutting back, or relocating plants.

Designed plant community: A designed suite of plants modelled upon naturally occurring plant communities

Green (living) mulch: Planting native plants closely together, in place of traditional mulches, to help suppress weed growth, keep taller plant root systems cool and moist, and provide habitat for wildlife. 

Green roof: Roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane. It may also include additional layers such as a root barrier and drainage and irrigation systems. 

Erosion control blanket: Rolls of matted material such as coconut husk fiber that can be be rolled out over construction or planting sites to prevent erosion.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM):  IPM is a decision-making framework for reducing pesticide use in farming or plant-production systems. IPM employs a four-phase strategy:  1)  Reduce conditions that favor pests, 2) Establish economic thresholds for specific pests, 3) monitor pest populations, 4) Apply nonchemical pest control, such as insect pheromone traps or introduction of predator insects, or chemical pest control only when a pre-established damage threshold is reached.

Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM):  An approach to manage vegetation and the environment by balancing benefits of cost, public health, and regulatory compliance.

Layering: Landscaping concept whereby vegetation of different heights/structure is incorporated into landscape design. For example, a groundcover layer provides a uniform “backdrop,” a layer of perennials provides seasonal interest, and woody interest of a tree(s)/shrub(s) provides a structural layer.

Liquid “Tea” Compost: A mixture of specifically selected plant material that has been fermented and broken down using water. This concentrated, highly nutritious liquid compost is then sprayed on soil as an organic soil amendment. Pre-mixed “compost tea bags” are available for ease of use by homeowners and professionals. 

Nurse crop: A quick-growing crop, such as annual rye or buckwheat, that germinates quickly, thus preventing erosion and protects fall seeded native plants until they germinate.

Phytoremediation:  A clean-up method that uses vegetation to contain, sequester, remove, or degrade inorganic and organic contaminants in soil, sediment, surface water, and groundwater.

Silt fence: Temporary barriers intended to retain sediment and control erosion on construction sites. Silt fences are usually made out of synthetic filtration fabric, such as geo-textile filter fabric, woven together to create sheets of material that are held in place with stakes.

Solarization: a practice of placing sheets of plastic over the ground to concentrate the sun’s heat and burn out weeds, weed seeds, and many plant pathogens. 

Tree trench: An underground system of structural soils, gravel and/or structural cells forming a continuous trench in which trees are planted, for example, under a sidewalk. Tree trenches store and infiltrate stormwater, and they provide tree roots with access to air and water stored in open pore spaces in the soil and gravel in the continuous trench. 

Wattle: long tubes filled with material such as coconut husk fibers, used at planting sites to prevent sediment from eroding.

Windbreak: Also known as a “shelterbelt”, a planting usually made up of one or more rows of trees or shrubs planted to provide shelter from the wind and to protect soil from erosion. A hedgerow or planting of evergreen trees around the edges of fields on farms are examples of windbreaks. 

PLANT PHYSIOLOGY

Evaporation: The process by which water transforms from a liquid to a gaseous state.

Guttation: The exudation of drops of xylem sap (from structures called “hydathodes”) on the tips or edges of leaves of some vascular plants, such as grasses, and a number of fungi. Guttation is not to be confused with dew, which condenses from the atmosphere onto plant surfaces. Guttation allows plants to relieve water pressure that can build up in plant tissues under certain conditions.

Phloem: Living tissue in vascular plants that transports organic compounds (sucrose) made during photosynthesis to parts of the plant where needed. This transport process is called translocation.

Stomata (plural) Stoma or stomate (singular): Minute pores in the epidermis of the leaf or stem of a plant that allow movement of gases in and out of intercellular spaces.

Transpiration: The process of water movement through a plant and its evaporation from stomata on leaves, stems, and flowers. Note: Planting plants in the ground on cloudy, still days will cause the plants less stress than planting on sunny, windy days as the rate of transpiration will be slower.

Translocation: The movement of materials (such as sucrose) from leaves to other tissues throughout a plant.

Xylem: The vascular tissue in plants that conducts water and dissolved nutrients upward from the root and also helps to form the woody element in the stem.

VEGETATIVE MORPHOLOGY

A. Duration

Annual: A plant that lives for one growing season and then dies. A winter annual germinates in the fall, overwinters, produces seeds in the spring, and then dies.

Biennial: A plant that requires two growing seasons to complete a life cycle. 

Herbaceous perennial: A non-woody plant that lives for several or many years; the shoot system dies back each winter. 

Woody perennial: A tree or shrub. The shoot system remains above ground during winter. The stems and the roots become woody and live for a number of years. 

B. Roots
Illustrated graphic showing how long prairie plant roots are below the soil

Many native prairie plants, but not all, have deep root systems, such as shown in the graphic above of prairie plants and their roots. At the far left, in contrast, are the roots of non-native Kentucky bluegrass.

Illustrated graphic show how shallow the roots of trees are

Many tree roots are shallow, as shown above. Use of illustration courtesy of MDC.

Adventitious: Developing from something other than the hypocotyl (the stem of a developing seedling) or another root.

Primary: Developing from the radicle of the embryo; the root that first appears from the hypocotyl or the seed.

Rhizome: See section C, Stems/Growth Habit. 

Root Flare: The part of the tree where the trunk transitions into roots and flares out. Also known as a root collar.

Mycorrhiza: A fungus that grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or sometimes pathogenic relationship. Plural is “mycorrhizae.”

Secondary: Developing from the primary root; branch roots.

Tap: A main primary root that more or less enlarges and grows downward.

Tuberous: Term applied to a relatively thick and soft root: enlarged and with storage tissue.

C. Stems/Growth Habit

Arborescent: Becoming treelike and woody, usually with a single main trunk.

Bark: Outer layer of trees. Note: the same species of tree may have different types of bark at different stages of its life, or because of different growing conditions.

Exfoliating bark:

River birch

Smooth bark:

Red buckeye

Platelike bark:

White oak

Corky bark:

Hackberry

Furrowed bark:

Mockernut hickory

Blocky bark:

Dogwood

Ridged bark:

Post oak

Branch collar: junction of a branch and the trunk.

Caulescent: With a distinct stem.

Corm: A short, upright, hard or fleshy bulb-like stem, usually covered with papery, thin, dry leaves.

Gall: An irregular growth on a plant stem or leaf caused when an insect lays an egg(s) into the plant part or a pathogen such as a bacteria or fungus infects the plant. Examples of different galls

Herbaceous: Not woody; dying to the ground at the end of the growing season.

Internode: The part of the stem between two successive nodes (see Node, below).

Lenticel: One of many raised pores in the stem of a woody plant—sometimes lens-shaped—that allows gas exchange between the atmosphere and the internal tissues.

Node: The area of a stem where the leaf and bud are borne.

Pith: The spongy tissue in the center of a stem. The pith may be continuous (solid throughout); diaphragmed (continuous, but with firmer cross plates at intervals); or chambered (tissue between plates has disappeared).

Prostrate: Growing flat on the ground.

Rhizome: A horizontal, prostrate, or underground stem with reduced scalelike leaves. 

Runner: A horizontal aboveground stem, arising from the ground, sometimes with small, scalelike leaves. 

Shrub: Plant having several main stems, more or less woody throughout, and usually less than 13 to 16 feet tall.

Stolon: Horizontal stem rooting at the nodes; a runner.

Sucker/Suckering: A new, fast-growing shoot or stem from the root system. Some native shrubs spread by suckering.

Tendril: A slender, twisting appendage that attaches a vining plant to other plants or objects.

Tree: A woody plant, usually with one main trunk and normally 13 to 16 feet or more in height with a definite crown of foliage.

D. Plant surfaces/texture/leaves:

Abscission: The natural detachment of parts of a plant, typically dead leaves and ripe fruit.

Bloom: The waxy coating on the parts of certain plants (e.g., stems of blackberry and raspberry)

Bud scale: A small scale surrounding a bud.

Glabrous: Without pubescence of any kind; smooth.

Glaucous: Having a waxy appearance due to a bloom or powdery coating of wax, e.g., raspberry stems.

Leaf arrangement:

Alternate leaves:

Opposite leaves:

Simple leaf:

Compound leaf:

Bipinnately compound leaf:

Leaf margins:

Entire:

Serrate:

Dentate:

Crenate:

Leaf shapes:

Cordate:

Lanceolate:

Oblanceolate:

Perfoliate:

Petiole: the stalk that joins a leaf to a stem.

Pubescent: Covered with short, soft hairs.

Stipule: small leaflike appendage to a leaf, typically occurring at the base of a petiole, sometimes in pairs.

E. Flowers/reproduction

Parts of a flower:

Anther: Pollen-bearing structure within the stamen, or male part of a flower.

Asexual Propagation: Reproduction of plants that involves taking a vegetative part of one parent plant (stem, root, or leaf) and causing it to regenerate itself into a new plant. The resulting new plant is genetically identical to its parent. 

Bract: A greatly reduced or highly modified leaf often found below the inflorescence, for example, the green structures below a sunflower flowerhead. 

Bud scale: A small, leaf-like covering surrounding a bud.

Buzz Pollination: A technique utilized by a bumble bee vibrating its flight muscles to release pollen from small, tubular flowers. Also known as “sonication.” Examples of plants that depend upon sonication include Chamaecrista fasciculata (partridge pea) and Primula meadia (shooting star).

Calyx: Collective term for sepal.

Corolla: Collective term for petal. 

Cuttings: Parts of plants, such as a cut stem or cut leaf, that can be used to propagate a new plant.

Dehiscent fruit: Seed pods and other dry fruits that split open to release seeds. For example, Baptisia spp. (wild indigos) or Amsonia spp. (blue star).

Dioecious: Describes a plant that has separate male and female plants (e.g., hollies, persimmons, eastern red cedar).

Filament: Stalk-like structure attached to the anther. Filaments and anthers make up the stamen, or male part of a flower.

Indehiscent fruit: A fruit that remains intact when shed from a plant. It does not open at maturity in a pre-defined way, but relies on predation or decomposition to release the seeds.

Inflorescence: The arrangement of the flower head or cluster of flowers of a plant. There are many types of inflorescences, such as umbel and spike.

Monecious: Describes a plant that has both male and female flowers on the same plant (e.g, oaks, sunflowers, tomatoes).

Ovary: Structure within the pistil (female part of a flower) that contains ovules, which become seeds when fertilized.

Petal: Individual segment of a corolla, often brightly colored.

Pistil: Female part of the flower, composed of the stigma, style, and ovary.

Pollen: Individual grains that produce male gametes (sperm cells). In flowering plants, pollen is released from anthers and in nonflowering plants, from cones. 

Pollination: The successful transfer of pollen from the male part of a plant to a female part of a plant, most often by an animal or by wind, later enabling fertilization and the production of seeds. 

Sepal: Leaflike structures that enclose a flower and when open, are positioned beneath the corolla (petals). Collective term for sepal is calyx.

Sexual Propagation: Reproduction of new plants through fertilized seeds.

Sonication: A technique utilized by a bumble bee vibrating its flight muscles to release pollen from small, tubular flowers. Also known as “buzz pollination.” Examples of plants that depend upon sonication include Chamaecrista fasciculata (partridge pea) and Primula meadia (shooting star).

Stamen: Male part of the flower, composed of the filament and anther.

Stigma: Part of the pistil (female part of the flower) that is receptive to pollen.

Style: Stalk connecting stigma to ovary. The stigma, style, and ovary make up the pistil (female part of the flower).

Types of inflorescences:

Catkin:

Head:

Panicle:

Raceme:

Spadix & Spathe:

Spike:

Umbel:

Reference for many of the vegetative morphology terms in this glossary:

Plant Systematics. 1986. Second Edition. Samuel B. Jones, Jr., and Arlene E. Luchsinger. McGraw-Hill.

Another reference that native plant enthusiasts may wish to consult for plant identification terminology: Plant Identification Terminology. 2001. Second Edition. James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris. Spring Lake Publishing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Make a Plant Native?

Native plants originally occur within a region as the result of natural processes rather than human intervention. In the lower Midwest (Missouri and surrounding states), native plants have existed since prior to the time of wide-spread EuroAmerican settlement a little more than 200 years ago. While the activities of indigenous people did affect the region’s ecosystems, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that large-scale habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native plants began to significantly change the natural landscape of the lower Midwest. Native plant species in the lower Midwest have evolved here over millennia and are best adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions. Even more importantly, native plants have co-evolved with native insect species and provide important food resources for thousands of species of invertebrates that in turn provide food for native birds and other animals.

Why should I use native plants?

Choosing native plants for developed and altered landscapes helps restore natural processes, rather than compete with them. Increasingly, gardeners, farmers, planners, and other landscape professionals, landowners, and nature enthusiasts in the lower Midwest are choosing native plants. The benefits of native plant use are fueling a gardening and land use movement that says “no” to insecticides and fertilizers and “yes” to biodiversity and the creation of more sustainable landscapes. Choosing native plants beautifies yards and other spaces, supports nature’s web of life, manages stormwater, stores carbon, and improves soil health.  

Aren’t native plants weedy?

Matching the right plants to a given set of conditions is the key to successful landscaping with native plants. In some cases, such as a 10-acre reconstructed prairie, you may want to use plants that tend to spread energetically by seed or underground rhizomes. This will help the planting become denser at a quicker rate and lower cost than if you had used non-spreading plants. However, in smaller landscape situations, it is important to select plants that don’t spread but grow as distinct individual clumps so they don’t invade space belonging to other plants.

Some sun-loving prairie plants become “weedy” when they are grown in soil that is too fertile and rich in organic matter. Rich soil can cause prairie grasses and flowers to grow too tall and fall over. For this reason, you generally don’t want to amend the soil before planting sun-loving grasses and forbs. Most native plants that grow in shade, such as ferns and celandine poppy, may benefit from additions of organic matter to the soil because they are accustomed to rich forest soils.

Do native plants require less water than non-native plants?

In general yes, but there are several factors to consider. Native plants should be planted in similar conditions as found in their natural habitats. For example, Virginia bluebells should be planted in shade with moist soils. Other native plants, like many prairie plants, have deep or netted root systems that are efficient at absorbing water, or have other plant parts like fine leaves that lose less water to evapotranspiration. Many plants native to glades have succulent leaves that store water, like prickly pear cactus, rock pink, and American aloe, and this adaptation helps them withstand droughts. Some annual native plants found on glades, like Carolina draba, flower and set seed in spring when water is more consistently available. All native plants must be watered when first planted. If they are planted in locations for which they are well suited, once established, they should require little to no watering (other than rain fall) except in extreme conditions.

Do native plants attract unwanted animals?

“Unwanted” is a subjective term. Native plants attract colorful butterflies and other flying insects, such as bees, that forage for nectar and pollen from the flowers and are essential for pollination and thus the production of many fruits and seeds. The insects attracted to native plants also are essential food for more than 90 percent of birds for at least a portion of their lives. Many fruit-bearing trees and shrubs attract songbirds and game birds that eat berries and fruit in the summer, fall and winter. Native plants also provide protective cover and nesting sites for a wide variety of wildlife. Therefore, yes, native plants do attract a wonderful array of wildlife that adds interest to our lives.

Where can I buy native plants?

Visit the Grow Native! Resource Guide for a list of businesses selling native seeds, plants, shrubs, and trees to the public.

Does Grow Native! sell native seeds and plants?

The Grow Native! program doesn’t sell any native seeds or plants. Its role is to promote businesses who DO sell lower Midwest-grown native seeds, plants, and related products and services. However, the Missouri Prairie Foundation and its Grow Native! program do organize sales of native plants and seeds supplied by Grow Native! professional members. Visit our Plant Sales page to learn about upcoming sales and the Grow Native! Resource Guide to find suppliers of native plant products and services.