Why Native Plants?

By Wendy Dorsey

You may have noticed that lately there’s a buzz about native plants. Maybe you read an article or a post on Facebook, an advertisement for a native plant sale, or attended a presentation. In all of these instances, the message was the same. Putting native plants in our yards is a beneficial thing. There are many reasons why this is true.

Native plants are especially adapted to local temperatures, rainfall, and soil. With regards to temperature, they can make it through the coldest winter freezes and hot, dry summers — like the one we had last year.

I didn’t water most of the established (more than one full year in the ground) natives in my garden during the drought. I didn’t lose any! This has to do with the fact that these plants are able to survive on the amount of rainfall our region receives, even through the challenging extremes.

Many native plants have longer roots than non-natives. Because of this, they are able to reach water that the others cannot. Native plants are easier to maintain and conserve water. Our soil is most often clay, or clay dominant, but some land is rocky with poor soil. Others have wet spots to contend with. The good news is that there are native plants that want to live in each of the situations. Gardeners do not always have to amend their soil, it’s easier to select the species that will be happy with what you’ve got.

In order to survive, wildlife needs shelter and food sources. Native plants provide both of those. It is important that we put native plants in our yards to begin to counter the habitat loss that has been occurring in our country. The USDA Forest Service estimates 6,000 acres of open space are lost each day, a rate of 4 acres per minute. This includes forests, meadows, and wetlands. The wildlife is left without a place to live and the plants that sustained them. 

Planting native protects biodiversity 

Biodiversity is all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area — the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms like bacteria. Native plants and insects began coevolving millions of years ago. In this process of slowly changing and adapting to each other over time, many specialized relationships were formed. An example from our ecosystem is the monarch butterfly and milkweed. Animals and most insects avoid eating milkweed because of the toxins they contain. Monarch butterflies, however, lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. They do this because these are the only plants their caterpillars eat. The toxins do not bother the monarch caterpillars, but do help them survive by making them poisonous to predators. If we do not have milkweed, we do not have monarchs. 

All kinds of caterpillars are crucial to keeping the balance in our ecosystem, not just the poster-child monarchs that are so wonderful to behold. The magnificent white oak tree hosts 952 caterpillar species, the most of all U.S. native trees. It’s easy to overlook this important fact, or maybe to even consider it a problem. Did you know that it takes 350 to 570 caterpillars every day to keep one nest of baby chickadees fed? To raise them until they are out of the nest, it takes between 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars! Now consider that it is not just chickadees, but rather 96 percent of birds that raise their young on the same food source. Without host plants like white oak, we won’t have caterpillars and without caterpillars, we won’t have birds. Native plants improve the stability and resilience of an ecosystem.

Native plants support a healthy environment

They are far less susceptible to pests and diseases, and do not require pesticides and fertilizers. Money and time are saved by not having to purchase or apply them.  Keeping chemical treatments out of our yards is better for us and all of the creatures that live in our ecosystem. Invasive plants, like autumn olive or English ivy are non-native plants that outcompete our native ones. In other words, they can take over an area, essentially displacing our local flora and the life forms that interact with them. 

A healthy environment is one that also supports human life. Native flowers provide pollen and nectar for our native bees, wasps, flies and birds. There are specialized relationships between flower and pollinator. A great example is the hummingbird, with its long narrow beak. It is able to get the nectar from very long, tubular flowers. While doing this, the pollen gets on its beak and head and some of it will brush onto the next flower it visits. It is estimated that every 1 out of 3 bites of food exists because of insect and animal pollinators. 

I encourage people to plant natives, flowers, shrubs, and trees, in their yards for all of the above reasons and more. What is most important is that every little bit matters. You don’t have to do a drastic, all-at-once makeover to your yard or property in order to make a difference. Start by adding one plant to your yard and encourage someone else to do so, too.Wendy Dorsey is the owner of Yellow House Natives in Berryville.