Posts Tagged benefits of native plants
Years ago — maybe 18 or so — I was a member of an arboretum that gave out rooted cuttings of free plants to subscribers at a certain level of membership. These were often plants relatively new to the horticulture trade that the arboretum was testing for my area. One year, they offered a three-for-one deal: cuttings of three different varieties of loropetalum (Chinese witch hazel). This was a new plant for me then, the description sounded appealing to my tastes — purplish leaves and magenta flowers, so I tried them.
We chain-sawed one to the ground this year. It grew way, way larger than promised, and it was crowding out plants I like better. So — off with its head!
I do still love the leaves that emerge purple, and with some varieties, remain a deep maroon. And I love the pizzazz of the magenta flowers. But these shrubs are not native here; Asia is their native land. And after 18 years of observation, I can affirm they do absolutely nothing for the local ecosystem that justifies the space they take. Why? Nothing eats them.
These plants are shunned by every insect and warm- and cold-blooded native animal that lives in my yard. They must taste very bad indeed. The only life I observe in these shrubs — which are 15-feet tall and 10-feet wide now — are birds, which use them as shelter during storms and as nesting sites in spring.
I wanted these shrubs to screen the front of my house from cars entering my driveway, and they serve that purpose admirably. But so would any number of native evergreen shrubs and small trees.
Some of you may be thinking that I am crazy to want to remove plants unbothered by “pests,” but if you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll recall that the rapidly increasing eradication of native southeastern forests is leaving native animals with diminishing options for survival. For more information, try this post or this one.
We gardeners are on the front lines of the battle to save our native ecosystems. I didn’t fully realize this when I happily acquired and planted three tiny new purple non-native shrubs almost two decades ago. Every plant choice we make contributes to the preservation or destruction of the natural world we love.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that Wonder Spouse and I are going to have to figure out a way to remove these giant purple sterile shrubs and replace them with well-adapted natives. I am a sucker for purple leaves and flowers, but in the future, I will stick with native options. I owe that to the natural world that nurtures my mind, body, and soul every day.
When we southeastern US homeowners release ourselves from the notion of a rigidly controlled landscape, magic happens. Instead of spending time shearing defenseless evergreen azaleas and boxwoods into cubes and spheres, or pouring chemicals onto a non-native lawn that you must then mow and fuss over, you can devote your energy to enriching your home landscape with native plants adapted to our region.
Not only will your blood pressure drop as diverse native shrubs, trees, wildflowers, ferns, and vines adorn areas once reserved for sterile sod carpets, our native wildlife — birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles — will gratefully seek shelter and food in the havens you create. Suddenly, your home landscape not only contains beautiful and relaxing plants, it is also animated by native wildlife — a win-win for all.
After you’ve adjusted your thinking about your home landscape to embrace native species, myriad options unfold before you. The purists can plant unhybridized specimens of a plant. These species will be identical to the native vegetation that naturally occurs (where it hasn’t been obliterated) in our region.
For a little more wow factor in your home landscape, many, many wonderful varieties of our native species — called cultivars — have been developed by horticulturalists and are sold at most nurseries. For example, my spectacular specimens of Magnolia — ‘Elizabeth‘ and ‘Butterflies‘ — are both cultivars of our native Magnolia acuminata.
As all gardeners know, creating a landscape is a long-term endeavor. Unlike redecorating the interior of your house, when you implement a landscape design of any kind, you must factor time into the equation. Plants are alive; they start small and grow larger. Weather, disease, and animal predation affect how they grow and whether they flourish. But in my 45+ years of gardening experience in this region, I have learned that if I plant a landscape dominated by a diverse array of well-sited natives, year-round, breath-taking beauty is my reward.
Autumn is almost upon us, which means now is the time to review your landscape plans, so that you will be ready for the fall plant sales that abound in our region this time of year. Perennials, shrubs, and trees are all best planted during the fall and early winter in our region, because the cooler temperatures encourage root growth, thereby better preparing your new additions for summer heat waves next year.
In central North Carolina where I live, the plant sale I get excited about is the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. The sale is an annual tradition at this Chapel Hill, NC public garden, and the array of healthy native plants available increases every year.
This year, among their many offerings, are two species of Pipevines — Wooly Dutchman’s-pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa) and Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla). These shade-loving vines with heart-shaped leaves add vertical interest to a naturalistic landscape, and they produce interesting little flowers that really do resemble tiny pipes. My fanciful brain imagines elves smoking them beneath the abundant fairy rings of toadstools populating my yard.
But I plant this vine mostly because it is the only larval food source for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. This is one of our more spectacular large native butterflies, but we don’t see it much in the Piedmont region, because its larval food sources (what the caterpillars eat) are not widely available.
Yes, this means that if you succeed in persuading Pipevine Swallowtails to lay eggs on your Pipevines, the caterpillars will eat holes in the leaves. But these vines are vigorous and perennial. New vines will sprout from the roots the next spring. For my money, a few ragged Pipevine leaves are a small price to pay for seeing Pipevine Swallowtails visiting the nectar-rich flowers I grow nearby.
Creating a rich, diverse native landscape is like choreographing a ballet. Shapes, colors, and forms interweave in a complex dance that differs daily, promising always to entertain and engage observers while feeding and sheltering the dancers.
So, my fellow green-thumbed choreographers, now is the time to patronize your favorite plant sales, preferably first at your local public gardens that use sales proceeds to keep their garden gates open to the public. And if you live within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, pencil in a visit to the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale on September 26 (members-only night) or September 27. Options will be numerous; truly there will be plants to suit any growing condition your home landscape may possess. I’ll hope to see some of you there!
Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.
Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.
People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.
Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.
Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.
Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.
Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.
Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)
The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.
Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.
Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.
The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.
This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.
Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.
Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.
Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.
The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.
Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.
Do it for the Earth.
Do it today.
Those of us living in the southeastern United States hear the refrain every year: fall is for planting. Truer words were never uttered. In our hot, humid, often droughty summers, plants do well to survive at all. Spring planting of new trees, shrubs, and perennials is a huge gamble, even if you water during droughts. Spring-planted plants just don’t have big enough root systems to withstand all that our summers often throw at them.
However, as the cooler, usually wetter weather of autumn arrives, new plants can focus on root growth while soils are still warm but not desert dry. Native deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials do especially well at establishing themselves when fall-planted, because they can devote all their energy to root growth after leaf fall.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better selection of native trees, shrubs, and perennials than you will find at the NC Botanical Garden’s annual Fall Plant Sale. Members get first crack at the goodies on Friday, Sept. 14 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. — and a 10% discount! If you’re not a member, you can join that evening and use your discount immediately. The public gets their chance at the plants the next day, Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Bring your own flats or boxes to use to carry your purchases home.
Why go native? If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve read my reasons more than once. To summarize:
- Native plants are adapted to our region, so they are better able to withstand our droughts, wet spells, heat waves, and occasional ice storms.
- Native plants are food sources for native wildlife. As urbanization continues to eradicate our region’s native forests and fields, planted natives in home landscapes, parks, etc. help to keep our native wildlife alive.
- Native wildflowers especially are key to maintaining our native pollinators. Now that honeybees (not native) are under attack by diseases and other issues, native pollinators are becoming increasingly critical to farmers who need their crops pollinated. Nobody eats if the food crops don’t get pollinated.
- Native plants in our landscapes remind us of where we are, affirming our sense of place. Certain trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns evolved here; they belong here, as do the insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds that evolved along with their native food sources.
We are all in this together, whether we realize it or not. Going native is your easiest gardening choice, and it’s your wisest. This fall, please consider adding some native plants to your landscape.
And if you live anywhere near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, plan to visit the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. All proceeds support this wonderful public garden, so every purchase is a win for all who love the natives of this region.