Sourcing Native and Edible Forest Plants

With spring approaching, many of you are considering native (indigenous) plants for the garden. Why natives? Native plants are those that occur naturally in an ecosystem and have evolved over a long period of time, along with native pollinators and other wildlife, to succeed in specific local conditions.

Where to source plants

In Joyce’s presentation on February 25 we learned that when buying native trees, shrubs, perennials, or other plants, it is worth sourcing these from nurseries that specialize in natives. Many commercial nurseries stock cultivated varieties (cultivars or nativars) rather than true natives. The cultivar, while attractive to the home gardener, may not have the characteristics of the original native that are appealing to wildlife.  For example, if leaf colour has been altered by selective breeding, insects may not feed on the leaf, and if insect populations are not present, neither is food for birds! 

Check to see if the plant is labelled as a hybrid, usually created by the intentional breeding of two different species to create a new plant with desirable traits. While some species hybridize naturally, most hybrids at commercial nurseries have been “designed” and are controversial in the native gardening world due to loss of genetic diversity. Some hybrids, though not all, are sterile.

When selecting your plant, check the scientific, rather than the common name. Hybrids are designated by the absence of a specific epithet or the presence of an x symbol. For example, Baptisia  ‘Purple Smoke’ is a hybrid of Baptisa alba (white wild indigo) and Baptisia australis (blue false indigo). Some species (e.g. red maple, white birch, snowberry, high bush cranberry and pussy willow) are often substituted with non native invasive varieties, so ask the nursery staff about the source of their material. Be aware that at some “big box” stores plants offered for sale may be native, but may have been raised elsewhere and thus has not been adapted to our Southeastern Ontario climate

Propagation from seed

1000 Islands bridges

Ideally the plant will have been grown from seed, and the seed itself sourced from nearby seed zones. These plants are adapted to local conditions and are more likely to thrive, while those grown from non local seed may not. Some nurseries will helpfully state the origin of seeds and plants on their website or catalogue, and may further provide assurance that the plant has not been taken from the wild or that pesticides have not been used. Sourcing from a local conservation group is a great way to get started or to enhance your collection. Some have created native wildflower kits that group together a number of species suited to particular conditions (sun, shade, wet, dry). On the Forest Gene Conservation Association (FGRA) website you can click on a map to locate your EcoDistrict and download the local tree shrub native species list. In Kingston, we’re Ecodistrict 6E-15. Other nearby possibilities are 6E-9 (Madoc/Havelock) and 6E-10 (Charleston Lake).

Gender and genetic diversity is important

Cedar waxwings are fond of Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) berries. But unless you have both genders of this dioecious species, there will be no berries for the birds. Photo: JanetandPhil, Flickr

If space in the garden permits, obtain more than one of each plant in order to enhance genetic and gender diversity. Some plants are dioecious, that is, male and female reproductive organs occur in separate individuals. Both are needed to ensure berries (a food source for birds) are produced. Dioecious species include:

  • Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Common Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica)
  • Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typina)
  • Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
  • Black Willow (Salix nigra)
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • Pussywillow (Salix discolor)

A monoecious plant has no gender difference between two individual plants; the male and female parts of the flower exist on each plant. Although multiple plants are not required for successful pollination, it is of huge benefit to establish more than one plant. This will create an opportunity for cross-pollination which will diversify genetics and encourage greater fruiting yields.

Nursery websites and catalogues contain a wealth of information about the products they sell. Often the “About Us” page will indicate the ethos of the business and from there you can find the source(s) that best suit your gardening goals.  Call ahead if you wish to check on the availability of specific materials.  Some places maintain demonstration gardens and are well worth a field trip!

Nurseries specializing in native and food forest plants

While we cannot provide a full list of all plant nurseries, below are some favourites!

map of the display gardens of Beaux Arbres
Visting nurseries with display gardens such as Beaux Arbres is a great way to see native plants growing together within specific ecosystems

Native Plant Nurseries

When buying from a nursery, ask about source. Can they tell you which seed zone the plant is from? Is the plant a cultivar (nativar)? Was the plant propagated by seed, cutting, grafting or tissue culture? Is the plant dioecious (can they tell you whether the plant is male or female)?

Fruit and Nut Tree Nurseries

When buying a fruit tree, ask about source. Often nurseries and and box stores source their fruit trees from Oregon. These trees won’t have the same hardiness as trees grafted and grown in Ontario or Quebec. Nor can they list which root stock they fruit tree is grafted onto. Ideally, choose a fruit tree from a nursery where you can choose a root stock best suited to your soil.

Conservation Areas

Buying native plants from a conservation authority is the best way to ensure you’re buying ethically sourced native plants raised from seed sourced from nearby seed zones.