Why Native Plants?

Short answer:

By planting native plants, you restore habitat for wildlife by providing food and shelter. You’ll attract songbirds and butterflies. Native plants require little irrigation or maintenance (reducing cost and time), are adapted to the climate and soil conditions of our region, prevent stormwater runoff and… they look fantastic!

Long answer:

Our natural areas are under attack. Our open spaces are disappearing at an alarming rate due to development. Each day, an estimated 6,000 acres of open space are converted to other uses. Globally, pollinators are on the decline due to widespread pesticide use and the massive monocultures created from land usage. Funding is being cut and budgets slashed for maintaining and protecting our precious green spaces. There are estimates of 30-50% of all species of plant and animals heading toward extinction by mid-century.

You can make a difference. Now, more than ever, we need to change the way we look at our own landscapes, and it starts with the plants… and the bugs.

The vast majority of life on Earth, which we as humans share with over 8.7 million species, is either an insect or a plant. The pyramid of energy in ecology is built upon the foundation of plants and insects – plants being primary producers, and insects the primary consumers.

Insects rely on green plants for food, and over 90% of plant species (including much of what we purchase from our farms and produce departments), require insects and other animals for pollination. Secondary consumers, such as a frog, eat insects for food. Tertiary consumers, such as snakes, eat the frogs… and so on, until we reach the top of the food chain.

But not all plants fulfill a role in the ecosystem. Insects and plants, native to a particular region, have evolved together over thousands of years. Take the Monarch butterfly, for example. Milkweed (genus: Asclepias) is the larval host plant for the Monarch butterfly, and is also an important nectar source for bees, wasps, and other beneficial insects. The milky substance found in milkweed is toxic to most animals, but Monarch caterpillars, or Lepidoptera, have evolved with it and can only survive on a diet of milkweed. Without it, they will die. Native asters and goldenrods serve as larval host plants to over 100 species of Lepidoptera.

On the other hand, non-native, exotic species introduced from Europe and Asia support few, if any, species. At best, they have little to offer in terms of providing a source of food. Many are not suited to our climate – our hot summers and cold winters – and require irrigation, maintenance, and supplemental fertilizers to survive. At worst, they adapt well to our climate and conditions and outcompete native species, becoming invasive, and leading to the destruction of habitat and ecosystems by becoming a monoculture (see English ivy, lesser celandine, burning bush, Japanese pachysandra, Norway maple, oriental bittersweet, kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, etc.).

Plant it and they will come.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can make an immediate impact by planting native species.

Plant a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and chances are you’ll notice spicebush swallowtail caterpillars munching on the leaves, even in an urban setting. Plant a swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and don’t be surprised if you find a Monarch, which you may not have seen in some time, depositing eggs on its leaves. Plant a mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) and you’ll hear the buzzing sounds of pollinators drawn to its nectar in late summer. Plant asters (Aster) and goldenrods (Solidago) and enjoy beautiful gold/purple/blue blooms throughout autumn, while providing a much-needed, late-season nectar source for pollinators. And where there are bugs, especially caterpillars (the prime rib of protein), there are songbirds. Want goldfinches? Watch them feast on the spent seed heads of coneflower (Echinacea) in fall after you’ve enjoyed the flower’s blooms throughout the summer.

By planting a nectar plant for pollinators, or a host plant for butterflies, you can make an immediate impact. By planting native plants, you restore habitat for wildlife and preserve natural history.