Why plant indigenous or endemic?

We are living in a time where planting anything, as long as its green and carbon sequestering, feels like you are doing your bit for the planet. But is it this black and white or are there shades of green?

Metalasia muricata- A beautiful coastal shrub with amazing texture and colour

With gardening trending in mainstream media, flowers abounding on instagram posts, happy faces with their vegetable harvests and interesting new pollinator discoveries, we have constant streams of green coloured imagery thrown at us and many itchy fingers wanting to start their own gardens. 

You may have a knowledgeable, green fingered friend who insists that everything must be indigenous and another who loves a garden filled with roses and hibiscus. In the rush towards being environmentally aware the understanding of what actually constitutes environmentally sensitive has gotten somewhat diluted and sometimes lost. How do we make the best decisions for our environment and our experience of it? 

The Six Kingdoms Ecological Design team recently did some work on a site near Plettenberg bay. The site borders a Critically Biodiverse Area (CBA) and is part of the Robberg Coastal Corridor, a unique stretch of coast with rugged cliffs and rare fynbos species present.  The property is in the process of regenerating after a voracious wild fire swept through it in 2017. The flora is still pioneering, the coastal fynbos is low and the wind still whips across the open landscape. As designers we knew we had to be particularly sensitive to what we planted, where we planted and why, so we got to work deepening our knowledge on the specific species that exist in this area. 

Why didn’t we just plant it up with colourful, common garden plants? 

To be ecologically and environmentally aware, we must realise that no matter what we do we make an impact. The smallest of changes in a natural space can shift the ecosystem and start chain reactions. When we plant something new in our garden we can alter the soil, create shade, invite in new creatures that have a relationship with the specific plant or tree, change the airflow, and much more. When we choose to plant indigenous and endemic species, we invite creatures like bees, birds and butterflies that have specific relationships with those plants and help to build a stronger, local ecosystem. There are thousands of different species of insects and birds that have relationships with only one specific plant family. If you learn a little about the plants you choose you can know what visitors to expect and revel in the joy of creating food for them when they arrive. 

On our site on the corridor we chose plants that only exist there already (or will exist in the future according to the succession of the flora type), ensuring we did not bring anything in that could potentially alter the rebuilding of the unique ecosystem. Our client asked for a few plants that were indigenous and not endemic. We researched these plants carefully to ensure they would not overrule other endemic species or spread too easily and where applicable we put these in. Sometimes, well meaning – gardeners put in indigenous plants or trees from other parts of the country that do particularly well here but are actually locally invasive. These species can outcompete local species and without knowing it you can lose the diversity and the fauna that would have arrived. 

Here are some of these words explained: 

Indigenous/native – plants that have developed, occur naturally, or existed for many years in a large geographical area. Both words have the same meaning, it just depends where you are in the world as to which one you might use. A plant is indigenous to an area, if it would naturally be found there without man’s influence. Eg: a tree that is indigenous to the Western Cape of South Africa. 

Endemic – Endemic Species are species of plants which are found in just one particular region and nowhere else in the world. Planting these helps to maintain genetic diversity and preserve your specific local biome. The term endemic is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘locally indigenous’ since indigenous can refer to very large area. For example, some Acacias are indigenous to South Africa but aren’t found in the Garden Route. 

Exotics – plants that have been brought in from other places around the world, and very often require a lot of resources to keep them happy. Most of our cultivated fruit and vegetables are exotic as are many popular garden plants. 

Aliens/invasives – plants that have usually been brought in as exotics, but are so well adapted to their surroundings that they spread uncontrollably, pushing out indigenous plants, and consuming precious resources at the same time.

Naturalised plants – those that have been introduced into an area, but are surviving and spreading without man’s help. Naturalised plants may become invasive if they are particularly well suited to their environment.

If it’s possible you should always look for an indigenous alternative to the plants that you are choosing for your garden. At the very least, if you plant exotics, make sure that they are not likely to consume large amounts of precious resources or overgrow the local diversity. 

Let’s garden with curiosity and allow our local ecology to be our feedback!

To explore an amazing resource for discovering the local plant type in your area, visit Cape Farm Mapper, and explore the vegetation layers here 

For further reading about plant species with specific pollinators click here




  1. Really enjoyed your website, great principles. Would like to stay in touch and see more of your work.

    • Hi Debbie,

      Thank you very much for the feedback! We've got some exciting projects in the pipeline in the next few months and will be posting more ideas on ecological landscaping principles as well as some updates on a few small projects from last year soon. Keep an eye on our social media accounts where we'll link any new developments.



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