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

Grow Native! Glossary & FAQ

Terms to know when gardening with native Midwest wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs.

Acorn
The fruit or nut of oak trees.

Annual
A plant that completes its life cycle in one year as opposed to a perennial that comes back year after year.

Cut Back
A pruning technique that keeps leggy plants more compact, promotes new foliage growth, or coerces plants to bloom repeatedly.

Deadhead
Removal of faded flowers, generally with some kind of pruning tool.

Fibrous
Usually refers to root systems that have no central axis and branch densely in all directions with thin fiberlike roots.

Forb
An herbaceous plant in a prairie or savanna that dies to the ground every year at the end of the growing season. Grasses, shrubs and trees are not forbs but “wildflowers” such as coneflower and gayfeather are forbs.

Hardy
Refers to a plant’s ability to withstand adverse weather conditions.

Hedgerow
A thicket of small trees and shrubs arranged in a relatively straight line. “Hedges” can also be created with some perennials, such as shining blue star (Amsonia illustris).

Mulch
A protective covering spread on the ground to inhibit weed growth and conserve soil moisture.

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 in spring.

Pinnate
A compound leaf with leaflets arranged on opposite sides of an elongated axis, for example, honey locust.

Shovel Divide
A maintenance practice that keeps vigorous perennials in their allotted space. When plants begin to get out of hand, insert a round-point shovel into the plant with the back of the shovel against what will be kept and the front of the shovel next to what should be removed. Pull back on the shovel and pop the unwanted portion of the plant out of the ground.

Taproot
A primary root that grows vertically downward and gives off small lateral roots.

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.

Why do native plants require less water than non-native plants?

Native plants have incredible root systems that support the plants in times of drought. Compared with the roots of most non-native plants, warm-season grasses and flowers have deep, extensive roots system that absorb moisture and prevent erosion. Many species of prairie plants have roots that extend four to eight feet into the soil, while cool-season non-native grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, extend only a few inches into the soil. Deep roots allow native plants to withstand long periods of dry weather and so they require little or no watering after they are established.

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! does organize sales of native plants and seeds supplied by Grow Native! professional members. Visit our Plant Sales page to learn about upcoming sales and to the Grow Native! Resource Guide to find suppliers of native plant products and services.