Native plants

Landscaping With Native Plants

There are good reasons to include native plants in your landscaping, especially as here in Alaska, we continue to lose our stately White Spruce (Picea glauca) to drought and spruce beetle. Native plants prevent soil erosion and once established, require little maintenance.

They support a diversity of insect pollinators and provide food, homes and habitats for wild birds, animals, insects and soil microorganisms.

Non-local plants may displace, and often do not support the same wildlife populations as native plants. They may become invasive, as in the case of the Mayday Tree, Prunus padus, now running rampant in Alaska.

Winter landscape.

Losing a large tree is a heartfelt loss for many homeowners. It’s like losing a family member. One way to think about replacements for dead trees is to consider your view. I lost  a 60 foot spruce tree due to beetle kill. On the upside, this loss allows much more light to come into my yard for gardening, but also opens up the view of the neighbors’ yards. So I lost some privacy as well a beautiful feature in my yard. Usually the largest evergreen I can buy would be a 6 foot tree, so I would have to wait 50 more years to replace the lost tree. Obviously that will not be in my lifetime.

You can think about what you want in your yard by looking over this list:

Elements of Landscape Plants and Their Duration:

  • Flowers (generally last 1 week to 2 weeks). May include perennial wildflowers and/or shrubs.
  • Leaves (present 4-5 months). May include Fall color-trees or shrubs.
  • Twigs (visible 8 months). May include Winter color. Think Red -twigged Dogwood or Rosa acicularis, our native rose.
  • Bark (visible 12 months). White Birch and the coppery, peeling Prunus maakii, Amur Chokecherry. Note: Prunus maakii is an ornamental, non-native tree in my area.
  • Fruit (present 1 week to several weeks). May include hips, seed pods, cones etc. which make for Winter interest.
  • Color variations. May include multiple seasons. Native Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum edule)  and Wild Currants (Ribes triste) have fruit and Fall color.
  • Groundcover (Visible during the growing season). Our native Dogwood, Cornus canadensis is highly desirable for shaded areas, with flowers, bright red berries and deep red Fall color.
  • Also consider: Shape, texture, and size in planning your landscape. Want to block a view, or let in more sun?
Canada Dogwood (Cornus canadensis). A beautiful groundcover.

Thanks, Canada!

Wild Currant (Ribes triste) in Fall color.

Finding Native Plants

At local nurseries, finding native plants hardy to your region may prove difficult. There may be opportunities to remove plants from a future construction site, with permission, of course. Many native plants have deep roots so transplanting trees or shrubs might not be the best way to collect them.

Another option is to grow your own natives from seed or cuttings. I enjoy experimenting and learning about plants this way.

Check to see if you have a native plant society in your area, and check with local gardeners who may be selling plants as a hobby. I am thinking of what I call “garden-worthy” plants for the home garden. I’m talking about beautiful and well-behaved plants.

As of this writing, gardeners in Alaska are awaiting the official proclamation of May as Alaska Native Plant Month. This idea was initiated by the Alaska Native Plant Society and supported by a number of organizations around Alaska.

There is a brochure outlining the value of native plants, sources for plants and seeds, and a list for further reading. I will attach a link to the brochure.

The brochure is linked on the AKNPS (Alaska Native Plant Society) website here:

Western Columbine (Aquiligia formosa).
Chiming Bells (Mertensia paniculata)
Fireweed (Formerly Epilobium angustifolium, now Chamaenerion angustifolium)                              (Photo by Arnie Cohen)

I recommend reading Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. His second book is Nature’s Best Hope. You will be amazed by the way Nature has plans for plants and insects.

A how-to booklet for growing native plants is Wildflower for Northern Gardeners by Pat Holloway and Virginia Gauss. Available thru Amazon.

Patrick Ryan is an Alaska Master Gardener and the Education Specialist for the Alaska Botanical Garden. A retired elementary school teacher, Patrick is a member of the Anchorage Community Forest Council and sits on the board for Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom.

3 comments on “Landscaping With Native Plants

  1. Mary Cantin

    Clearly this author is more knowledgeable and responsible than others you have featured on the topic of natives. Alleluia. An author that is Canadian that has good sources is Lorraine Johnson.and I’m sure others have more to recommend.

    • Patrick Ryan

      Thanks for your comment Mary. Not so much an expert as an enthusiast.
      I’m doing a free webinar on landscaping with native plants on Wednesday May 17 at noon Alaska time.
      Info at the Alaska Cooperative Extension site.

  2. Mary Cantin

    Thank you. A MUCH better article about native plants than the previous one. On the right track now.

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