Wildflowers. Wattles. Eucalypts. Emu bush. If you’ve studied on-campus at La Trobe, you’ll be familiar with many of Australia’s native plants. When it comes to planting them in your own garden, though, choosing which species to feature can be tough.
That’s where indigenous plants come in. Compared to native species, indigenous plants have several specific advantages. But what makes them so different?
“Technically, ‘native plants’ refer to plants from a particular country, like Australia. Whereas ‘indigenous plants’ refer to plants from a certain locality,” explains Steph Chan, a science alumna who works at La Trobe’s indigenous plant nursery.
“We encourage people to plant indigenous plants in their gardens because those species have evolved to suit the local environmental conditions. They’ve adapted to things like soil type, temperature and rainfall, so they require less maintenance to keep them alive,” she says.
La Trobe’s indigenous plant nursery is located within the 30-hectare Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary at our Bundoora campus. Today, the nursery grows over 300 species of trees, shrubs, groundcovers, climbers, grasses, herbs and wetland plants – which makes it the ideal place to discover the benefits of indigenous plants.
Working with nature: advantages of indigenous plants
Steph is one of several science alumni who’ve launched their conservation careers at La Trobe’s indigenous plant nursery. Today, as a visitor experiences assistant across the nursery’s retail and production divisions, she’s applying her Bachelor of Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) to every task.
“The knowledge from my degree helps me give advice on everything from plant care to plant assemblages and habitat requirements. The people I work with are great and the work environment is very special, being surrounded by nature. I like that I’m playing a part in returning indigenous biodiversity back into urbanised landscapes,” she says.
To help you consider why you should garden with indigenous plants, we chatted to Steph and the nursery team to discover their five top benefits.
1. They're optimised for your bioregion
Indigenous plants are primed for the unique characteristics of your local landscape. If you live in a more arid area, for example, indigenous plants for your garden will likely be drought-tolerant, because they’ve adapted to environmental conditions with minimal water, or annual wet/dry weather cycles. They’ll likely have deep roots, as they’ve evolved to stabilise dry soils. And they’re unlikely to need fertiliser, because they’ve adjusted to cope with nutrient-poor soils over time.
2. They provide food and habitat
Just as indigenous plants have evolved to suit your local soil and water conditions, so, too, have insects, birds and wildlife evolved to seek these plants for food and shelter.
“By incorporating plants that are indigenous to your local area, you’re also providing habitat and food resources to support your local fauna,” explains Steph.
Growing indigenous plants will help attract birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, lizards and other handy animal pollinators to your garden. What’s more, you can put away the chemical pesticides! Because indigenous plants are adapted to the grazing and browsing pressures of local wildlife and insects, you won’t need to spend every morning on pest patrol.
3. They won’t become weeds
We’ve all got a story about a wayward plant. Perhaps a neighbour's creeper pushed through your fence, or a rogue plant self-seeded in your garden?
“There’s always the chance that a non-indigenous plant disperses seed or spreads beyond the backyard and starts to establish in reserves or parkland, which causes a weed issue,” Steph says.
As weeds start to dominate, they can injure or exclude other established indigenous plants. Invasive species can also cause genetic pollution among the indigenous plant populations when they interbreed. Species that are genetically-modified, for example, can have a profound effect by sterilising or outcompeting local indigenous plants.
Rather than feeling anxious at the idea of your garden growing out of control, why not choose an indigenous plant? If it does escape your garden, you can be confident it’s not going to obliterate other local species.
4. They preserve local biodiversity
Around the world, processes like urbanisation and monoculture farming have transformed ecologically diverse land. In turn, many indigenous plants have been restricted to small remnant patches.
These remaining patches are often not large enough to support a variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms. And as complexity dwindles, the life of other species is threatened, because each species (including humans!) relies on many other species to survive. Protecting and restoring the diversity of ecosystems is vital.
The good news? Gardening with indigenous plants is a brilliant way to preserve biodiversity. By adding them to your pots, hanging baskets and garden beds, you’ll be helping sustain the living world around you.
5. They look beautiful
Of course, one of the biggest benefits of indigenous plants is their aesthetic appeal.
“Indigenous plants can have the reputation of not presenting like a ‘traditional garden’ would, and that they’ll look a bit shabby or dry. But we have some fantastic plants in all sorts of colours, textures, sizes and growth forms that can really make an enviable garden,” says Steph.
Many indigenous plants are not only long-lived, but have interesting sculptural forms and attractive flowers, too. In fact, to celebrate the beauty and backyard biodiversity that indigenous plants bring, Steph and the team created a 2021 calendar showcasing local gardens.
“Our community members submitted photographs of their indigenous gardens and of local wildlife using their gardens and nesting boxes. The calendars have all sold out, but you can check out some of the photos we featured on our Facebook or Instagram,” she says.
How to find indigenous plants in your area
Now you know the benefits of indigenous plants, you might be wondering where you can source them?
If you live in Melbourne’s north or east
If you’re passing by La Trobe’s Bundoora campus, why not stop into our nursery and pick up a plant or two? La Trobe’s nursery specialises in indigenous plant species from Melbourne’s middle and lower Yarra catchment, which is where water from the Yarra River collects in the landscape.
If you live in this catchment area, too, the nursery offers a handy plant finder to help with your plant selection. Use it to search by plant type to see a range of plants, or by common or scientific name if you’re looking for information on a specific plant.
Along the way, you might discover some of the nursery team’s favourite indigenous plants for pots. Among them are the cut-leaf daisy, which grows in full sun and shade and flowers year-round if kept moist, and the tufted bluebell, which loves open sunny positions and adds a splash of purple to your garden in summer.
For shady spots, try the showy violet or the hop goodenia, which tolerate full sun to full shade. And if you’re keen to attract nectar-feeding birds, the team also love the rosemary grevillea, which flowers in winter and spring.
If you live elsewhere in Australia
Take a trip to your local plant nursery and get chatting with staff about indigenous plants. Or, jump online to visit your local council’s website.
“Local councils tend to have resources like indigenous plant lists to help with choosing suitable species. Some councils even run Backyard Biodiversity programs, which are about turning your garden into a biodiverse haven for you and your local wildlife – they can be very educational,” says Steph.
If you live outside Australia
Many government departments and horticultural societies have online information on indigenous and native plants. For example, readers in America can start by visiting the US Forest Service website, while readers in Singapore can check out this article by the National Parks Board.
Wherever in the world you’re gardening, Steph’s advice for beginners is to start small.
“Get started with some easier to grow species to build your confidence and keep going from there."
You'll be incorporating indigenous plants of all shapes and sizes in no time!