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The case for growing indigenous species in your garden

Oak Leaf hydrangea flowers attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Their seeds are songbird food.

Even if you’ve heard the “plant native plants in your garden” mantra, maybe you’re not clear on just why. Well:

Native plants, shrubs and trees are the ones indigenous to an area—they’ve been there for generations, and they’re part of an overall ecosystem that includes the animals, birds, insects, worms and other organisms within that region. Consider it a giant family group, interconnected and interdependent, each member producing food and/or shelter for another in an exquisite choreography of give-and-take. Key to the survival of all are the pollinators—the mobile creatures who manage to get pollen from one place to another so that plants grow, shelter is assured, and the food-cycle wheel continues to turn.

The U.S. has turned unconscionable amounts of wildife habitat into cities, towns, roads and highways. In the past century, 150 million acres of nature habitat and farmland have been repurposed for urban sprawl according to the Audubon Society. Meaning: native plants have been edged out and pollinators’ land has shriveled exponentially. The popularity of lawns—we’ve got some 40 million acres of them—which provide virtually no benefit to pollinating species, exacerbates the problem, as does our fascination with plants that have been imported and hybridized. These new-fangled and foreign species not only overtake the habitat of native plants, the vast majority provide no sustenance or benefits to local pollinators. All those cutesy-named, patented blooms with double flowers? Bees, butterflies and their pollinating cohorts can’t find the pollen-coated anthers through those confounding overlapping petals, and chances are good the flowers’ fragrance, a time-honored homing device, has been bred out.

All those cutesy-named, patented blooms with double flowers? Pollinators can’t find their way to the stamens through those confounding overlapping petals

Imagine banishing all the books in your local school and library and replacing them with a batch written in Martian. That’s about the equivalent of planting non-natives in your garden. The pollinators (and other creatures, but we’ll concentrate on pollinators for now) can’t “read” them. Regional pollinators and plants have co-evolved for centuries and their interdependence is specific and cellular. Their complementary attributes work in sophisticated unison to ensure that buds and flowers form, berries and cones grow, leaves unfurl and branches extend, assuring shelter and fuel for generations of new plants and organisms. 

From a practical standpoint, native plants are a gardener’s dream. They’re adapted to the soils and climate of their region so require less watering and fertilizing. No need for pesticides either, these plants have long developed strategies for dealing with local pests.

Some pollinators require specific native plants for their lifecycles to continue. Monarch butterflies, for example, need milkweed, the only leaves their caterpillars can eat. Black swallow tail buttterflies like dill, blue butterflies go for red osier dogwood and chokecherry. Bees have a broader palate, zeroing in on a smorgasbord of blue, purple and yellow flowers with a sweet fragrance. Check out this National Wildlife Organization link—you can plug in your zip code and get a list of pollinator-friendly native plants specific to your area. There’s no shortage to choose from, so take advantage of the bounty!

A few things to keep in mind when planting your natives:

  • Steer clear of cultivars (bred for appearance rather than pollinator-friendliness) and be suspect of “nativars,” native species bred to be more attractive to humans. Studies are mixed as to how effective these are in supporting pollinators.
  • Plant large swathes of natives if possible, making them more visible to pollinators.
  • Plant a variety of flowers whose blooming times are spread throughout the season.
  • If you’ve got the room, Include trees like chokecherry, service berry and wild maple and oak in your plans. A few fun facts: Wild oaks are the host plant for 500 species of caterpillars. It takes 6,000 caterpillars to provide food (well, they are the food…) for a single brood of chickadees. By comparison, a gingko (imported, non-native) hosts only 5 caterpillar species. Given the math, which would you rather plant? You can imagine how the birds would vote.
  • If there are non-natives you can’t live without, go ahead, plant them. Just aim for a ratio of 80% natives to 20% non-natives so everybody—you and your wildlife—is happy with the equation.

Give your local pollinators some time to find your generous new offerings. They will, clever souls. When they start visiting, feel free to snap and post a photo or two and tag us on Instagram: #dirtygaiahv

—Margot Dougherty

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