Native Plant Alternatives to Ornamental species

This topic seems to be popping up all over.  What’s the deal?

We use cultivated ornamental species in landscaping because that’s what the nurseries sell, that’s what the neighbors have, and because they thrive.  So what’s the problem? Why should we use native plants instead?

large single plant of Russian Sage with spikes of lavender flowers

Russian Sage

First, definitions:

native plant = a species that occurs naturally in a particular regions, ecosystem, and/or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention (i.e. it’s been here for a long time and it evolved to be adapted here)

cultivar = a plant that has been selected for cultivation because of a particular characteristic or group of attributes – e.g. color – typically reproduced through cloning.

ornamental = plant grown for decorative purposes

The problem is that cultivated ornamental plant species frequently are not host plants for native pollinators (pollinators cannot make use of them), can become invasive, can contaminate local gene pools, and cannot maintain the sense of place that is something we all love about the places we live in.  There are great native plant alternatives that are hosts for native pollinators, provide habitat for local fauna, thrive in local climates, use less water, and preserve a sense of place.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) use Dotted Blazing Star (Liatris punctata) or Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Instead of Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) use Ninebark (Physocarpus malvaceous) or Tri-lobed Sumac (Rhus trilobata)
  • Instead of Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) use Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) or Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata)
  • Instead of Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) use Western Wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii)
  • Instead of Chickory (Cichorium intybus) use Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)


large single sagebrush plant with silvery blue foliage


Look for native plants with similar color, height and growing requirements to use instead of non-native species whenever possible.  You’ll be doing good things for your environment and for you!  


One thought on “Native Plant Alternatives to Ornamental species

  1. I have flax in my meadow–thought it would dot the field with color. It has taken over in some patches. Not the nice guy I thought it would be. (Wenatchee, Washington). Planted a nine bark cultivar and it’s going rather slowly, even with water added.
    I’m curious what your take on Russian Sage is, since you included a photo, but no caption, and it’s not in your list for substitutes. Planted one at the entrance to our culdesac. It’s been well behaved so far. The natives I planted all croaked–sedum, buckwheats, mahonia…though the Idaho rye and a ceanothus came through for me.

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