What is a native plant?
Typically, an indigenous species that lives in a particular ecosystem is considered native there. The native range of a species can be extremely limited (such as a pine rockland area in South Florida) or nearly worldwide in many ecosystems and many countries. When we say that a species is native to Broward county we mean that it is indigenous to at least one place in Broward, but also native to other counties and often to other states and countries as well. In other words, its native range includes Broward. Exploring Florida has maps of the native range of particular tree species, or more accurately, their distribution.
Endemic species are native only within a particular place or region and nowhere else in the world. A Florida endemic species is native to particular places in Florida, its native habitats and native range, but not everywhere in Florida and not outside of Florida. No endemic species that we know of is native only within Broward county. There are dozens of species endemic to South Florida and native nowhere else.
Recent and catastrophic change, whether naturally occurring (like volcanic activity) or, more often, caused by human activity (like development and climate change), challenges us to redefine native species in a rapidly-changing environment. New standards for reference ecosystems or "provenancing strategies" are being developed by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) to help manage natural land and restored ecosystems. These new reference ecosystems take into account adaptive changes occurring in some species and the rapid natural migration of other species. Still other species cannot adapt to rapid change and become locally extinct. Under rapid change, many rare and endemic species, those with a very limited native range, are in danger of global extinction.
Historically, species were said to be native in North America if they existed when Columbus sailed to the continent. Of course, it was an arbitrary date meant to imply the natural landscape before European explores began transporting plants around the globe. Many botanists traveled to places never before seen by Europeans and they recorded many of the indigenous species, making it possible for later botanists to create lists of species presumed to be native to particular places. Subsequent scientific advancement has added to the knowledge of which species are indigenous. There are many reasons why this system based on Columbus has lost its significance as a way of determining which species are native. For example, the date of Columbus has no meaning on other continents or globally. Significant human-assisted plant movement occurred elsewhere at other times in history long before or long after Columbus. We also know that indigenous peoples moved species on the Americas long before Columbus. In the 500 years since Columbus, plants have continued to move naturally without human assistance and rapidly evolving species have continued to evolve, so these species newly on the landscape are rightfully indigenous, too. And finally, land use and development and human-caused climate change, our current reality, is rapidly changing environments so that many indigenous species can no longer live where they have lived during the past millennia. Therefore, land managers can no use a pre-Columbia plant list to properly manage a natural area.
Whether an existing native species is a "living fossil" of the Jurassic or a recently evolved endemic species, we should try to keep it alive in nature if that is possible. We don't let great old books die of mold and worms, we try to preserve them for their historical and artistic value. A living thing, a species, is valuable, too. A living native plant has an impressive heritage. A species is wondrous in its design and biochemistry. Often it is beautiful to look at. It is the result of time-tested survival strategies and a unique expression of life. Within plants are potential solutions, not only to medicine, but to the problems of strength, structure, and decay that vex modern civilization’s urgent need to replace plastics, concrete, and other non-sustainable materials.
We can't successfully save species in seed banks or botanical gardens alone, although these efforts are important. Plants need to be conserved and restored in natural ecosystems. Ecosystems are living, highly complex and dynamic places of great seen and unseen activity with interdependence among plants and animals, the air, soils, microbes, and countless biochemical processes. We can and must “improve resilience in a changing climate, and re-establish an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture.” (Society for Ecological Restoration)
How do I know if a plant is native or not?
We recommend the Institute for Regional Conservation (IRC) online as the most reliable source of native status of species in South Florida. The IRC has two databases: 1) a comprehensive and searchable list of native species and the natural areas where they can be seen, and 2) a large and diverse list of native species with cultivation information for gardeners and landscapers. The University of South Florida Atlas of Vascular Plants is a good resourse for all of Florida, for its map of counties where each species is found natively, for voucher cards online, and other features. The Florida Native Plant Society database has most of the features of the other databases and has a user-friendly search for species in any Florida county.
How can I identify the species of a plant I encounter?
Learning native species in Broward Chapter presentations and field trips and learning from others who can identify native species is helpful.