Two women tend to Michigan native plants on the shoreline of Lake Leelanau, Michigan.

Michigan Native Plants Demystified

There is a movement underfoot to reestablish native plants in our gardens, public spaces, natural areas, and, as we have said many times, along the shoreline. This week’s Watershed Wednesday welcomes spring by focusing on Michigan native plants, their importance, and how to get your hands on them.

Why Native Plants?

Native plant species are part of diverse ecological communities that have evolved in response to climate, soils, hydrology, competition, and other influences. Native insects, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife evolved by utilizing native plants and native ecosystems as their primary habit. This is why restoring native plants is important.  

Native shoreline plants have evolved to have deep root systems that can hold shorelines in place, prevent erosion, and filter out nutrients through root absorption. This keeps our shoreline more stable and our lake healthier. Since native plants have evolved over thousands of years, right here in Leelanau County, plants native to our area thrive when planted in the right sunlight/moisture conditions. 

In addition, by ensuring you are planting Michigan native plants, you reduce the chance of introducing dangerous invasive species that could harm the ecosystem!

Getting to Know Native Plants

Getting to know native plants can seem like a daunting task. However, like any new area of interest, your knowledge grows with time. What becomes important is that you are using the local species of these plants when restoring ecosystems. When we say local, we are generally talking about native plants that have grown in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota for the last several hundred years.

It’s all in the name. The scientific name of a plant is made up of two words; the Genus and species. For example, Acer rubrum (Red Maple) is a native tree. Acer platanoides (Norway Maple) is an invasive non-native tree. You can see that not all maples are the same and have the same impact on an ecosystem. The reason that you are often presented with a list of Latin names when looking for native plants is that the species matters.

Northern Michigan native plants in Lake Leelanau, Michigan.
Northern Michigan native plants in Lake Leelanau, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Mark Bugnaski Photography.

Recommended Native Plant List

The Lake Leelanau Lake Association has compiled a short list of easy-to-grow and easy-to-find native plants. You can find the list here. If you want something more comprehensive, the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership has an extensive list of recommended plants for inland lakes. 

Plant names that have additional names—like “Bubble Gum” or “Purple Glow”—are hybrids and may or may not provide the same ecological benefits that the true native species do. It is best to stay clear of the hybrids if you are trying to provide the most ecological value.

Where to Buy Michigan Native Plants

We are very fortunate that native plants are plentiful in our area. The nurseries that carry Michigan native plants have incredibly knowledgeable staff to help you find the plants that will thrive in your yard. You can find a wide array of native plants at the following nurseries:

Northern Michigan Native Plant Sales

The Grand Traverse Conservation District also has an excellent spring sale. They have a sale for flats you can order in advance until Sunday, April 30, and pick up in mid-June. The flats are often labeled Butterfly Garden (sunny and dry conditions), Woodland (shady and moist conditions), Shoreline (sunny and moist conditions), etc. Click here to order. 

Don’t delay—the flats sell out quickly! They also have a one-day sale for quart pots of over 70 species on Saturday, May 20  from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. outdoors at the Boardman River Nature Center. To learn more, click here.

In addition, the Leelanau Conservation District is hosting a native plant sale. You can order plants in 38-plug garden kits, each containing various native species that grow well together in a specific niche (similar to the categories above)—pre-order plants by Friday, May 19 for pickup on Friday, June 2 at the Leelanau Enterprise. Individual native plants will be available in quart-sized pots on the day of the sale on a first-come, first-served basis. To learn more and order, click here.

The Leelanau Conservancy also has rescued native woodland plants for sale Memorial Weekend at the Leland Village Green.

Leelanau Conservation District's 2023 native plant sale flyer.
Photo courtesy of the Leelanau Conservation District.

The gardening idiom “The Right Plant in the Right Place” holds true for native and non-native plants. Light requirements and moisture requirements are essential.

If you have questions regarding Michigan native plants, please call our Shoreline Ambassador, Nancy Popa, at 231-944-9509.

Featured image courtesy of Mark Bugnaski Photography.


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