WE ARE A NATION OF GARDENERS, yet only recently have Americans turned their attention toward the 20,000 species of our nation’s native plants. Once regarded as inferior and ragged, our native plants are often the ultimate “right plant for the right place” because they are from that place, well-adapted, and reliable. However, just as we are discovering these natives, we are in danger of losing a significant part of our flora forever.
Our young country was settled quickly, and our use of the land outpaced our understanding of it, which caused unintended consequences. In some areas little natural vegetation remains, or native habitats are fragmented or extensively altered. Invasive exotic species overwhelm native varieties. Some species occur in such small patches that they have lost vigor and are no longer reproducing well; they easily could be lost through fire, insect damage or occasional plant collecting.
Nearly 900 species in the United States are either listed federally as endangered or threatened or qualify for listing. This number is close to 5 percent of our entire flora! About 10 percent of our native species are of significant conservation concern. Some areas have more diverse or more threatened flora than others. The Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) has designated Hawaii, California, Florida, and Texas as four hot spots of plant diversity, where there is a high number of imperiled plant species and extra attention is needed for conservation.
Two-thirds of these imperiled wild plants are related closely to cultivated species. It’s not only landscape values that could be lost, but also the gifts they provide in food, fiber, fuels, fragrance, flavors, flowers, and pharmaceuticals. The valuable roles they play in healthy ecosystems of clean air and water and stable soils are also immeasurable. We can maintain these treasures for future generations by providing natural areas and integrating our use of the land with thoughtful management and restoration. The CPC works with more than 600 imperiled species, each of which has its own story of adaptations, characteristics, and potential usefulness.