Indigenous Landscapes

By Keith Tomlinson

When patrons walk into our parks, we want them to have a great experience. As a result, we’re rightly focused on facilities—pools, pavilions, campgrounds, ball fields, and interpretive centers. Yet it’s often the landscape and geographic setting that will lure the first-time visitor. A tree-lined drive, river frontage, or inviting trailheads are subtle but effective marketing tools that are rarely recognized. We can build on these assets by using more native plants in the landscape. Over the past 25 years, resurgence in the use of native plants has provided real aesthetic, ecological, and economic value. But there’s much work to be done as native plants are frequently still seen as only a niche pursuit. In reality, these plants are what connect parks to the greater surrounding landscape. Whether you’re operating a park in sub-tropical Florida, the upper Midwest, coastal California, or cool New England, native flora illustrates how unique a location really is.

Trade Exotic For Ecological Integrity
We’ve all seen it—a uniform row of colorful shrubs or tidy conifers lining a path or road into a park. This is the 1970s landscape—neat, supposedly low-maintenance, easy to grow, and ecologically barren. A few years later, native plants decline, bird diversity dips, and the maintenance crew starts removing invasive species instead of focusing on other necessary projects. This is the result of using multiple ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials, often described as good “performers,” but in reality tomorrow’s invasive weeds. Recent studies have shown these plants attract little wildlife when compared to native species. As stewards of open space, we must strive for an improved standard and promote a park’s true ecological and aesthetic potential.

A sense of place is something most people find keenly appealing. It embodies where we live and recreate, how things smell, feel, and look outside. When we consider a sense of place and the role of native plants in parks, we’re promoting local ecology or ecoregions. Scientifically, ecoregions combine plants, topography, and climate to define a distinctive place. Think the Adirondacks, the Everglades, the Sonoran Desert, the Ozark Mountains, or the Great Lakes forests. These are all ecoregions; a park is located in each one.  Currently, there are 115 major ecoregions in North America. Embracing your ecoregion fosters a sense of place that makes a park truly unique to visitors while increasing environmental and aesthetic quality.

The Benefits Of Native Plants
A native-plant landscape is beautiful and becomes ecologically balanced over time. This, in turn, leads to economic benefits. You’ll save on staff time controlling invasive plants. Transitioning to natives won’t eliminate weed control entirely, but will reduce it because weedy species will not be introduced in the first place. Once established, native plants require little irrigation or fertilizer. Visitors are smart; they recognize good stewardship of the environment and are likely to invest more time and money in a site that is beautiful and ecologically balanced. Local natural-resource managers will take note as well. If a park is full of invasive landscape plants, the managers will take due negative notice, possibly complicating long-term property leases, steering funding sources to better managed sites, and fomenting concerns with local politicians and stakeholders. Alternatively, these resource managers will be the first people to recognize and support your work toward responsible stewardship. When it comes time to expand or remodel facilities and schedule the requisite public hearings, your work with native-plant landscapes will be recognized as a cogent approach to overall park operations. Today, more park buildings strive to meet LEED certification standards; an environmentally thoughtful, native-focused landscape is an integral part of this process. Ideally, sustainability starts with the landscape and informs the physical plant development accordingly.

Making The Landscape Transition
Promoting the ecoregion approach to a park landscape has never been easier. Both new and older programs exist to support the efforts. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center outside Austin, Texas, has compiled key information about native plants across North America for decades. A detailed list of suggested native species for each region can be found on the website. A newer initiative supported in part by the LBJ Center and others is the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI). The SSI brings together expertise from botanical gardens and landscape architects who provide many innovative ways to make any site better managed and more attractive. The local chapter of the nature conservancy will also have valuable information on regional biodiversity and ecoregions. State agricultural-extension agents offer knowledgeable support as well. Nearly all parts of the country have active native-plant societies and nurseries. These growers often “grow to order” for those in need of a particular species. Never collect plants from the wild; always use propagated material. Finally, don’t forget about state universities and local public gardens, both of which are tremendous potential resources. If funding is available, you may want to conduct a natural-resource inventory of a park. This detailed information leads to reliable decision-making. Combining any or all of these resources provides complete access to information about native plants specific to a park’s ecoregion.

Set The Standard
The inclusion of native plants in a park is a measurement of operational acuity in a management portfolio. Authentic leadership in today’s park agencies goes beyond staff management and revenue generation. Truly skilled managers consider how the environmental quality of a park enhances revenue potential, donations, stakeholder support, and cost savings. Sound fiscal management, effective public relations, and increased visitation are ultimately connected to our capacity to conserve parklands with a vision of genuine stewardship. Creating a unique native-plant landscape based on a specific ecoregion is a subtle yet effective method for keeping a park environmentally relevant and ecologically healthy. A sense of place is a powerful business tool when we choose to cultivate it.

Keith Tomlinson has been an interpretive naturalist for 30 years, a Biology Fellow at the Washington D.C. Academy of Science, and Manager of Meadowlark Botanical Gardens with NOVA Parks in Northern Virginia. Reach him at