I hear discussion among gardeners about the nativity of plant species. Is it native to New Jersey? If not, where is it native?
Can a native plant ever be invasive? Yes, “planting native” is definitely desirable. But consider this: in the past several decades, climate change has warmed New Jersey. Several species, formerly known only from areas south of the state are now present in New Jersey and spreading.
It is convenient to say “they are moving in from the south,” but that fails to describe what’s happening. These species have always been sending seeds into New Jersey, but our colder winters kept them from becoming established. They were native plants in their nearby states of origin, and they came into New Jersey on their own. Why are they not native plants?
Carry that question farther back in time. How do we know what plants are native to New Jersey? The first European settlements here were in the 1620s, and the usual definition of “native” is “present when the first European settlers arrived.”
Those folks were busy just keeping alive. It was over a hundred years before anybody took a close look at the flora of New Jersey. John Bartram sent plant specimens from the vicinity of Philadelphia back to England starting in 1733. Peter Kalm traveled and collected plants in Gloucester County from 1748 to 1750. Andre Michaux collected extensively here from 1785 to 1796.
Kalm had noticed that many European plants had already become established here. We can’t assume that there were no other changes in the flora of New Jersey in that hundred years.
Of the roughly 2,700 species of plants that are now growing without cultivation in the Garden State, about 900 were presumably not present in the state in 1620. Most of these immigrant plants are European, but at least 100 are known to have originated in other parts of North America, including states contiguous to New Jersey.
About 30 of these are naturalized here in New Jersey — that is, widely distributed and propagating freely. Such familiar (to gardeners) plants as black-eyed Susan, small white morning glory, and foxglove beardtongue fall into this category. Are they now native?
The flora of New Jersey is changing. It has been changing slowly for thousands of years, but it is changing very rapidly today. Species previously known from southernmost New Jersey are spreading northward, even as some northern species are declining.
Some plants that were common here a century ago are endangered today, and a few plants that were rare then, like cranefly orchid, are becoming relatively frequent now.
“Native to New Jersey” is a vague term. Deal with it on a species by species basis. Native species can become locally invasive if the environment changes. And you can’t assume a plant is native just because it seems to grow well here.
For information about the Gloucester County Nature Club, see gcnatureclub.org/
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