Why Native Plants?

A friend who I do landscaping work for was just now asking me about a shrub she wants to plant in her yard. I said, Cool, we can find a native equivalent of that. She asked, Why can’t it just be that specific one I like?

This is a very frequently asked question, so I could have sworn I’d already made a post about this topic. But I can’t seem to find it with the search function so I’m putting something quick together for you guys now.

In a nutshell: Native plants provide food and habitat for your local birds, butterflies, and other essential wildlife. Non-natives provide only very limited food, or none at all — because your local critters have not co-evolved with the non-natives and therefore do not recognize them as food.

Birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife aren’t just “cute.” Our lives actually depend on them, as we are just now waking up to realize.

I read somewhere that crape myrtles (a favorite ornamental tree) support ZERO caterpillar species in the USA, whereas a native flowering tree supports some huge number of species. I’ll try to dig up that citation for you. (Caterpillars not only are baby butterflies and moths; but also, caterpillars themselves are the main essential food source needed by baby birds. To raise a baby bird to adulthood, the parent needs to find thousands of caterpillars to feed it.)

Also, here is some reading from the best experts I know.

Doug Tallamy: Native Plants Support Local Food Webs (ecosystemgardening.com): Our traditional view of gardening has been to treat plants as if they are merely ornaments and to ignore their ecological roles. Your garden is part of the greater landscape, and each of us is responsible for becoming a steward of our properties as a healthy contributor to the environment around us. Native plants support local food webs. Invasive plants disrupt local food webs, and ornamental plants offer very little in the way of contributing to the local food web.”

Meet the Ecologist Who Wants You To Unleash the Wild On Your Backyard (Jerry Adler, Smithsonian magazine): “Fed up with invasive species and sterile landscapes, Douglas Tallamy urges Americans to go native and go natural. … All around him plants were in a riot of photosynthesis, converting the energy of sunlight into sugars and proteins and fats that were going uneaten. A loss, and not just for him as a professional entomologist. Insects—“the little things that run the world,” as the naturalist E.O. Wilson called them—are at the heart of the food web, the main way nature converts plant protoplasm into animal life. If Tallamy were a chickadee—a bird whose nestlings may consume between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars before they fledge, all foraged within a 150-foot radius of the nest—he would have found it hard going in these woods. Tallamy knew, in a general sense, why that was. The plants he was walking among were mostly introduced exotics, brought to America either accidentally in cargo or intentionally for landscaping or crops.”

More thoughts: It’s not that we need to rip out all the existing nonnative plants in our yards. And it’s not that we have to restrict ourselves to planting 100% natives. For one thing, most of the plants we grow to provide food for ourselves (fruit trees, grapevines, vegetable plants, etc.) are not native to the places where we live. For another thing, a yard can provide wildlife sanctuary and support biodiversity if even 70% of its plants are natives. So you don’t need to go ripping out that favorite shrub, and you don’t necessarily have to refrain from planting some nonnative plant you’ve taken a fancy to. (Just do your research to make sure the plant isn’t listed as a top-category invasive in your area; those can be illegal to transport or cultivate.)

Also: There’s room for variety. Say you want a hedge or a grouping of shrubs. No reason why it all has to be one type of shrub. The nonnative bush my friend mentioned is one she loves for its fragrance. The fragrance is quite strong and sweet, and carries far, so even one or two bushes of it planted by the porch will deliver that olfactory delight to her nose.

Or say you liked that fragrant nonnative bush, and wanted a whole hedge of it. You could instead plant a predominance of native shrubs, with just one or two of “that fragrant nonnative bush” in the mix. (By the way, there are native shrubs that have fragrant flowers too!)

Some of the prettiest hedges are a mixture of various types of bush rather than one uniform mass. A mixture also has the advantage of being less likely to all get killed off during a drought or extreme long rains or extreme temperatures, all of which we’re seeing more of these days in most places. Also, big advantage here, a mixed hedge is mixed, so there’s not the onerous fussy task of constantly having to try and keep it maintained to a visually uniform texture and height. All of this makes a mixed hedge better for your wallet, better for your precious time, and better for the planet that is our only home!