The West Virginia Native Plant Society is dedicated to conserving the Mountain State’s native plants and habitats, as well as understanding these plants and their benefits to the environment.
Established in the 1980s, the WVNPS is a resource that works together with other organizations in the state, such as the Division of Natural Resources and the West Virginia University Herbarium.
“It’s a collaborative, loose network of many different organizations,” Luanne McGovern, president of WVNPS, said.
“A lot of the effort is in conjunction with the experts in the state to appreciate, collect and to preserve the native plants of the state, which is very technical in a way, but it’s also a lot of people who just love native plants,” she said.
A key part of the organization’s work is researching and documenting plants, particularly in areas they may not have been found before, and one way this is accomplished is through nature walks, where members and volunteers try to find new sources of native plants.
“One of the questions I always get asked is, ‘How many native plants are there in West Virginia?’ The answer I give is as many as people have found,” McGovern said.
An upcoming hike will take place at Kanawha State Forest April 22. “If nobody’s ever found a plant there, it’s not because it’s not there, just no one’s found it or collected and cataloged it and brought it to the organization,” she said.
Finding native species
An objective of the WVNPS is to educate, and once specimens are collected, they’re kept in herbariums for future knowledge or scholarship. Its website at www.wvnps.org is also a resource database.
Native plants are defined as species that grew in the area prior to European settlement, according to Jim Vanderhorst, member of the WVNPS and an ecologist for the DNR’s Natural Heritage Program, which tracks rare and endangered plants in the state.
“There is a long history of botanical study in the state, which has given us a pretty good idea which species are native, and which are introduced from elsewhere in North America, or exotic from outside North America,” he said.
Some ways to protect rare native species are to first determine where they occur. The West Virginia Natural Heritage Program conducts surveys for, and maintains a database of, rare plant populations known in the state.
“These locations need to be considered and protected when management activities are planned,” Vanderhorst said. “Usually, it’s best to avoid disturbing the habitat of rare plants, but sometimes they may benefit from the right kind and right amount of disturbance in the right place.”
One resource to determine a plant’s native status is a book written by founding members of the WVNPS, “The Checklist and Atlas of the Vascular Flora of West Virginia,” available on the organization’s website. The book is a checklist of every plant that has ever been found in West Virginia — up to 2006 when it was published—complete with maps of where each plant has been documented.
Gov. Jim Justice signed a proclamation Feb. 26 proclaiming April 2023 as West Virginia Native Plant Month in the state, an initiative that was spearheaded by the WVNPS. The proclamation states there are more than 1,700 native plant species in the state, including trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, grasses and wildflowers.
“Native plants provide food including nectar, pollen, seeds, and foliage for native birds, caterpillars, butterflies, bees and other wildlife in ways that nonnative plants cannot,” the proclamation reads.
McGovern said this designation will hopefully raise awareness of native plants and how to preserve and protect them, as native plants are key to the sustainability of the entire ecosystem, but two of the biggest threats they face in West Virginia are climate change and invasive species.
“More and more people are so interested in native plants because invasive plants are everywhere, and climate change is impacting all these different factors,” she said. “So many of these invasives and horticultural things that are brought in don’t feed the natural world in which we live. That’s why knowing what’s here is so important.”
There are also steps to take to cultivate native plants on an individual level, the first being educating yourself about what is growing and what should be growing in your lawn. For example, the grass itself may not be native to West Virginia, and pesticides and herbicides used by landscaping companies can cause harm to native species.
Letting lawns grow and limiting the amount of landscaping done can benefit native plants and their habitats. Though invasive species are something to look out for, McGovern said.
“If the whole state is a lawn, it’s not going to sustain the wildlife that we need to continue,” she said. “Let your lawn go and let it go wild, but invasives will come in and take over really quick, so you have to have a conscious effort of what you’re trying to do.”
To protect native plants already on your property, Vanderhorst said to try mowing smaller areas or less often.
“See what comes up,” he said. “Control nonnative invasive plants to make room for the natives.”
Vanderhorst said West Virginians can buy and plant species native to the Mountain State, and a guide of what may be best to plant in your specific area can be found at online at dep.wv.gov/WWE/getinvolved/Pages/WV-Planting-Tool.aspx.
The WVNPS is working to identify more native plant sources as well. Sourcing native plants is a challenge in West Virginia, McGovern said, though some local vendors at the Capitol Market in Charleston are expanding their selection of native plants.
“It’s difficult to source native plants in West Virginia consistently,” she said. “If you go out and buy some flowers to plant in the spring, where do you go? Maybe the Capitol Market—some people there specialize in natives—but it’s difficult. Like a lot of things in West Virginia, there’s an economic barrier, too.
“We have had some interest in some people coming into West Virginia to start native plant nurseries, but again, it’s a big upfront cost,” she continued.
Poaching from public lands is another big issue concerning native plants. Plants such as ginseng, goldenseal and wild onions often become poached and inappropriately dug so that no part of the plant remains.
“Don’t go out in public lands and poach native plants,” McGovern said. “Exotic flowers also become poached when people find them in isolated locations. If you want a native plant garden, source only from responsible sources.”
Those interested in joining the WVNPS may visit the website or attend meetings and nature walks. Membership costs are $12 a year.
“We really need more active contributing members,” McGovern said. “We need new young blood to be interested and come with fresh and new ideas.”
The statewide organization meets quarterly, and the next meeting is scheduled for April 29 at the Doddridge County Park.
The WVNPS also has a Facebook group with about 13,000 members, which encourages discussions and questions about native plants throughout the state.
McGovern said what she likes best about being part of this organization is experiencing the beauty of the state, as well as expanding her education. “[I like] learning about the plants and learning from all the unbelievably educated people who have been all over the state; they can tell you the history of various plants and about when they’ve found plants they thought were extinct,” she said.
“It’s a garden out there,” she continued. “It’s like a treasure hunt — get out there, enjoy the beauty of West Virginia, and then if you can, give back a little bit to some of the great organizations in the state. Everybody’s looking for help to preserve.”
As the only group in the state that focuses on native plants, which has also been the focus of his career for more than 30 years, Vanderhorst is a longtime member of the WVNPS.
“I enjoy the field trips. Occasionally, I will lead a field trip or teach a workshop on a group of plants that I know well,” he said. “I hope more people become involved with the WVNPS. Native plants have been neglected in the state. They need our help.”