From roots to canopy, trees are real warriors for clean water and our most recent Potomac River report card, streamside forests received the worst grade: an F.

So, as we continue to protect riverside forests and advocate for tree plantings, why is it important that those trees be native species? Let’s dig deep into these and other in-tree-guing questions.

Native species are plants and animals that naturally fit into the local ecosystem based on temperature, precipitation, and wildlife.

Native plants and trees are vital to the smooth operation of the local environment. They play a major role in the local food chain for insects and birds, in the cycle of carbon capture, and in the filtration of nutrients and polluted runoff that enter our streams and drinking water sources.

Native species are good for us humans too.

Native trees have adapted to thrive with local soil types, temperature fluctuations, rain levels, pests and diseases. Therefore, they require less resources from us (money, time, pesticides, upkeep, etc.) to keep them alive, allowing them to live longer and store carbon for longer.

Native plants and trees also attract local birds, butterflies, mammals and pollinators. Native species are a real tree-t.

Unfortunately, local native plants and trees are stressed out. Here’s why:

Invasive species reproduce quickly, spread aggressively, and have the potential to cause harm to local species. Posing a major threat, invasives out-compete native plants and trees for vital resources like soil nutrients, sunlight, and water and most don’t support local wildlife.

That’s why you’ll never catch deer eating English Ivy, they want to eat up all the yummy local plants they’re attuned to like, putting further stress on native species.

Another stressor on native vegetation might be in your own back yard. Occupying over 40 million acres, turf grass is the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S. — and it requires over one 3rd of all residential water use. 

That is a lot of resources going towards grass that often provides no habitat or food benefits for local wildlife and pollinators. To make matter worse, fertilizers and pesticides are commonly used to keep lawns looking so green and perfect, which washes off into our local waterways, contaminating drinking water and harming aquatic wildlife.

Throughout our region, land is being developed at rapid rates, leading to heavy deforestation. This destruction wipes out native trees and vital habitat for native plants and wildlife. 

In cleared-out areas that are left to regrow, you’ll see kudzu and other invasives out-competing trees and local vegetation for sunlight.

All these threats are further exacerbated by the impending climate crisis.

Our warming Earth and changing climate alter the very things native plants have adapted to thrive in:  

• Temperature 

• Precipitation 

• Frequency of extreme weather events 

• Air quality 

• Land cover

When these environmental factors start to drastically change, native species are less effective and invasives that adjust more quickly to changing environments begin to move in like English Ivy and Purple Loosestrife. With all these threats to native species, there’s work to be done.

We can all be a force for nature and support local vegetation.

Botany plants lately? (See what I did there?) If you’re looking to purchase plants and trees for your yard, consider getting native species. 

Learn how to identify invasive species in your yard and remove them. 

Tell your representatives in Congress to support The Climate Stewardship Act that will plant 100 million new trees in urban areas and billions of new trees in large forest landscapes by 2030. 

Advocate for native-tree friendly policies in your community and state.  Maryland just passed a law to commit to planting 5 million new native trees in ten years. Change is possible — but elected leaders need to hear from us. Contact your representative or senators and urge them to protect and plant native trees.

Become a monthly sustainer of the Potomac Conservancy and help protect riverside forests, advocate for native-friendly policies, and revitalize the Growing Native planting and seed collection program.

Brandon Dawson is community conservation manager for the Potomac Conservancy. o

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