County, plant experts roll out new native species database

A new searchable database compiled by local plant experts offers insights into growing native plants, like this viburnum, in Virginia’s Piedmont. File photo. A new searchable database compiled by local plant experts offers insights into growing native plants, like this viburnum, in Virginia’s Piedmont. File photo.

Those seeking guidance in the garden have a new resource at their fingertips: the Piedmont Virginia Native Plants Database, a searchable list of 341 native grasses, trees, and wildflowers, all found in the region before the arrival of European settlers, and all accompanied by information about where they can be put to best use.

Want to find out what plants will grow in that swampy, shady corner of your yard? The database can narrow it down, and go further. Want your plant to have flowers that don’t clash with your existing lilac? Check. Need it to be unappealing to the hungry groundhog that lives under the shed? Can do. Builders and landscape architects can search by use, too, to help pinpoint plants suitable for everything from green roofs to detention basins.

There are a number of good reasons to encourage people to grow native plants, said Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee chair and Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Director Lonnie Murray, who helped develop the database with Albemarle County Water Resources Specialist Repp Glaettli and a volunteer team of local plant experts. For one, he said, they’ve had millennia to adapt to Virginia’s soil, climate, and pests. As a result, he said, “site-appropriate use of native plants can really help reduce our use of water and pesticides, and reduce sedimentation.”

A landscape rich in natives is, by default, a diverse one, Murray said, and that comes with benefits, too.

“Anyone that works with water quality issues knows the gold standard of knowing whether water is safe to drink or swim in is biodiversity,” he said. “If nothing can live in it, you don’t want to swim in it.” The same principle can apply to land, he said, and efforts to clean up brownfields and contaminated areas through habitat restoration show it can work in reverse: Increase biodiversity and you can encourage the health of an ecosystem.

Getting developers, landscape architects, and other stakeholders onboard isn’t always easy, though. Albemarle Director of Community Development Mark Graham pointed out that developers often have to prove the viability of plantings in order to get money back from municipalities in the form of performance bonds.

“There are questions as far as plant availability, too,” he said—desirable natives aren’t always easy to find at your local nursery.

As a result, developers and planners alike have historically favored fast-growing, easy-to-find plants, including some invasive species now targeted for eradication.

In fact, both the county and the City of Charlottesville’s recommended plant lists name invasives like autumn olive and privet
—species the city is currently trying to remove as part of the costly Meadow Creek restoration project.

The new plant database is part of a trend to update those lists and encourage more use of native plants. Chris Gensic of the Charlottesville Parks & Recreation Department said revised recommendations are in the works for the city, and according to Graham, the new searchable list dovetails nicely with the county Comprehensive Plan’s emphasis on native plants as natural resources.

It may not have a huge impact on the landscape right away, Graham said, but he and others think the database will prove an important tool—for governments looking to shape policy, developers trying to restore disturbed areas, nurseries seeking the right plants to stock, and homeowners in search of suggestions for their own gardens.

“I think it’s one of things, like the ball rolling downhill, that’s going to start picking up speed,” he said.

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