Patrick Thompson has tended the trails and dells of Auburn University's Davis Arboretum for the past two decades, carefully curating the many native species of plants coloring the outdoor oasis near the heart of downtown and often providing expert answers to those of us in the community who were born without a green thumb.
One of his biggest suggestions for us amateurs? Plant native.
It's a suggestion he hopes residents will follow as they tend their own yards and curate new additions, as native plants, naturally, participate in the native ecology.
"When you plant something that's not native, it's going to be either something that could cause a problem or something that's not going to help as much as a native plant. The best-case scenario is it just sits there, which is what camellias do — they don't spread; they don't cause problems; they're nice decorations," he said. "But a native plant is going to participate in the native ecology. It means there's going to be pollinators benefiting from it, probably some insects that are eating the leaves, and that's OK because that's what birds have to eat and bats have to eat.
"To get food from the sun into our local animals, we have to have local plants."
Auburn residents flocked to the Davis Arboretum's native plant sale last Saturday, buying out in less than four hours the stock of native azaleas that Auburn professors and gardeners created over the past four years.
"Auburn people might take for granted all the nice orange azaleas we have blooming around town, but that's actually a pretty special Auburn thing," said Thompson. "In the case of some of the azaleas, we do have hybrids that are Alabama species crossed with other hybrids, so in a sense they are not fully native but they still actively participate in the ecology of Alabama — interacting with the animals in the environment and that’s a big benefit."
Thompson said native species aren't just limited to plants. In addition to the thousands of native plant options, he said he would like to see the use of native grasses increase as well.
"Muhly grass is a common one, and there's a couple different types of bluestem grasses that you can find for sale sometimes, and wire grass is native in open pine land. It's a little hard to get started, but it's a neat thing that's missing from the local landscape. It's worth trying to bring back," he said. "One more thing I'll add for native plants — if you're looking at landscape, consider the native fruit-bearing things we've got, like five species of native plums, lots of native blueberries, cherries."
Those interested in learning more about native plants can get an up-close experience at Davis Arboretum, which features hundreds of species of native plants, many of which have labels.
"We're another one of those resources you can use to choose native plants for your landscape," he said. "Come out here, walk around, see what you like. If it's a woody plant, then there will probably be a labeled specimen somewhere. And if it's not a woody plant, you can email us a picture at email@example.com and we can tell you just what you're looking at."
Thompson also said the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a good resource for those looking for more information. It's website is located at www.wildflower.org.
"Use that phone when you're in the store and Google those names and see if it's a native species or an invasive species," he said.
The Alabama Plant Atlas (www.floraofalabama.org) is also a great resource to determine what plants are native to a specific county, he added.
"'Native plants,' in itself, is sort of a loaded term because when someone hears native plants, they think of plants native to North America," Thompson said. "But when we say native plants, we are speaking about plants that are native to Alabama."
For anyone who may have more questions, you can contact the Arboretum at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 334-844-5770.