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Native, non-native and invasive species… what’s the difference?

Monday, June 15

By Caitlin Yoder, education coordinator

You may have heard the terms native, non-native and invasive in the context of plants or animals that live in Northern Indiana. But the meaning of these words might be confusing, as well as how their differences impact the health of our natural resources, including the lakes.

Let’s start by defining our terms…

  • Native: a species that originated and developed in its surrounding habitat and has adapted to living in that particular environment.
  • Invasive: a species of plant or animal that outcompetes other species causing damage to an ecosystem – this can be a native or non-native (exotic) species.
  • Non-native: a species that originated somewhere other than its current location and has been introduced to the area where it now lives (also called exotic species).

In general, a native plant will produce robust foliage and/or blooms once established, and quickly attract critters like butterflies and insects. They survive in both dry and rainy weather without suffering. An invasive plant will spread and prevent other plants from growing. Although beautiful in their own way, they dominate their ecosystem and don’t provide the nutrients needed by native insects and animals. Non-native plants share qualities of both: they produce foliage or blooms and don’t take over their habitat. But they’re often not adpated to the environment, and require more care than native plants.

Sometimes the differences get blurred. For example, you can have a native plant that becomes invasive as it takes over your flowerbed. In the context of a lake, blue-green algae is a native species that causes problems like an invasive would.

You can also have non-native species that stay in one spot and don’t become invasive. Most landscaping plants (especially those planted annually) fall into this category. Although not native, they also don’t disrupt their environment.

The ideal native plant garden will have a balanced variety of species, much like the landscaping around the Lilly Center’s home in the Dr. Dane A. Miller Science Complex. You can find butterfly milkweed, white heath aster, purple coneflower, blue flag iris, wild quinine, blue-stemmed goldenrod and black-eyed susan, just to name a few! Each plant is adapted to keep the others in check and also provides habitat and food for many kinds of insects and animals.

But how can you help keep invasives at bay in Kosciusko County? Consider joining the Kosciusko Water and Woodland Invasive Partnership (KWWIP)! We build community support to protect the land and water in Kosciusko County from non‐native invasive species. We need you to join our ranks! You don’t need to be an expert in native and invasive plants. Just bring your passion and your work boots and together we can make a tangible difference for our community and our natural resources. For more information about KWWIP, please reach out to Peggy Wihebrink at pwihebrink@hotmail.com.


Want to learn more? Visit these expert sources!

USDA: Defining native, invasive and non-native species

Ecological Landscape Alliance: Differences between native and invasive species