“In Britain, ‘native’ plants and animals are categorised as those that have inhabited Britain since the last ice age”
“In the United States, however, ‘native’ plants and animals are those that existed there only since before Columbus landed in the Caribbean”
A native plant is a species that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human intervention. The concept of “native” can be somewhat fluid and arbitrary, often tied to a specific time frame and influenced by cultural or national perspectives.
For instance, in Britain, native plants and animals are defined as those that have inhabited the region since the last ice age. This categorisation reflects a geological and historical perspective, connecting the notion of nativity to a significant climatic event in the past.
In contrast, the United States defines native plants and animals as those that existed in the region before Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. This definition ties the concept of native species to a historical and cultural event, illustrating how the understanding of “native” can vary depending on the context.
This distinction highlights that while native species certainly exist and play crucial roles in their ecosystems, the concept of “native” is not only about geography but also about time. It’s a reminder that ecosystems have always been dynamic, with species moving and adapting over time.
Examples of native plants from various regions illustrate this diversity:
- North American Native plants
- Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis): A small, native tree known for its pink flowers.
- California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): The state flower of California, with bright orange blooms.
- European Native plants
- English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta): A bulbous perennial with blue, bell-shaped flowers.
- Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum): A mountain flower native to the Alps.
- Australian Native plants
- Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos): Recognizable for its unique, paw-like flowers.
- Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis): A rare and ancient tree species found in New South Wales.
- Asian Native plants
- Cherry Blossom (Prunus serrulata): Famous for its stunning blossoms, especially in Japan.
- Bamboo (Bambusoideae): A versatile plant found across Asia, essential to many ecosystems.
- African Native plants
- Protea (Protea cynaroides): South Africa’s national flower, known for its distinctive appearance.
- Baobab (Adansonia): An iconic tree of African savannas, often called the “Tree of Life.”
These plants, each deeply integrated into their respective environments, demonstrate how the concept of “native” encompasses both place and time, reflecting the dynamic and evolving nature of ecosystems.
Historical and Geographical Context
- Post-Glacial Migrations: After the last ice age, as glaciers retreated, plant species naturally migrated to newly available habitats. These migrations, occurring over thousands of years, mean that many plants currently considered native may have originated elsewhere.
- Natural Dispersal: Plants can move across landscapes through various natural mechanisms like wind, water, or animal dispersal. Over time, this can lead to a plant becoming established in a new area where it becomes part of the local ecosystem, eventually being recognized as native.
- Prehistoric Human Movement: Even before the advent of global trade, prehistoric humans played a role in moving species as they migrated. Some plants that are now considered native may have initially been introduced by early human populations, either deliberately or inadvertently.
- Historical Time Frame: The concept of a native plant is often tied to a specific historical time frame. For example, a plant might be considered native to Europe if it has been present since the last ice age, whereas in the Americas, the time frame might be pre-Columbian. These time frames are somewhat arbitrary and reflect human perspectives on history and nature.
Ecological and Evolutionary Perspectives
- Ecological Niches: Native plants are typically well adapted to local conditions and occupy specific ecological niches. Even if a plant has migrated or been introduced long ago, if it integrates seamlessly into the ecosystem without causing harm to native species, it can be considered native.
- Co-evolution: Many native plants have co-evolved with local wildlife, forming symbiotic relationships. This co-evolution is a key aspect of what makes a plant native, as these relationships are crucial for the health and balance of ecosystems.
- Invasive vs. Native: An important distinction is made between plants that have become part of the ecosystem over a long period and those that are invasive. Invasive species are introduced (usually by humans, recently in ecological terms) and can outcompete, displace, or harm native species and ecosystems.