Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2011

Part 1 of a Series

Sustaining Wildlife with Native Plants in Your Yard

By Jacquie Bokow

I’ve just read a book on the importance of biodiversity and I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned.  The book is called Bringing Nature Home:  How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy and I purchased it at the Wild Bird Center in Wheaton.

Usually the first step in the suburbanization of an area is to bulldoze the plants native to the neighborhood and replace them with large, manicured lawns bordered by a relatively few species of popular ornamentals from other continents.  Look outside your door and what do you see?  Sterile lawns (which are, basically, alien grasses) separated by impermeable paved roads and sidewalks.  Throughout suburbia, we have decimated the native plant diversity that historically supported our favorite birds and mammals.

At first, development left islands of suitable habitat in which most of the plants and animals that survive today found refuge.  But today these habitat patches are miniscule, far too small to sustain populations of most living things for very long.  Environmentalists howl over the loss of forest in the Amazon, but Tallamy says only 15 percent of the Amazonian basin has been logged, whereas well over 70 percent of the forests along our eastern seaboard are gone.

There are many compelling reasons to choose native plants, but the most compelling to Tallamy is because they feed the bugs!  Our native insects cannot survive on alien plant species.  If you look at the alien plants taking over the land — multiflora rose, autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, Bradford pear, Norway maples, mile-a-minute weeds — all have very little or no leaf damage from insects.  While it might sound like a gardener’s dream to have a pest-free yard, what it really means is a sterile environment.

Nearly all terrestrial birds (96 percent of them in North America) rear their young on insects, not seeds or berries.  Not seen as many birds lately?  Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing to eat in your yard.  (Yes, I have a bird feeder, too, but the babies can’t eat those seeds.)  What parents will build a nest if they must travel scores of miles to the nearest grocery?  No bugs means no birds.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are “specialists”; they lay their eggs and feed before they become adults only on milkweed.

The same goes for the bugs.  You want butterflies?  Planting butterfly weed or a butterfly bush will feed the adult, but that adult won’t lay its eggs there as there’s nothing for the emerging caterpillar to eat.  When I planted Joe Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed (both natives) in my boggy backyard early last summer, I was astonished at how many bugs were on them.  The types of bugs there changed with the time of day, but at one point I counted 15 different species — including several monarch butterfly caterpillars — on only one bush!  Perhaps there were so many bugs because those few blooming plants were the only food in the vicinity.  Clearly, there must have been something else to eat as they had survived, but it was as if my yard was the only decent diner in town.

Native insects shun alien plants because they are specialists, able to eat only a few plants (in some cases, only one).  If their one food source disappears from an area, so do the insects.  They might make it to another plant of the same species, but if the distance is too great, they’ll starve before they get there.

It is within your power, as an individual gardener, to make a difference.  Countless species could live sustainably with us if we would just design our living spaces to accommodate them.  In too many places, we have removed the food, shelter, and nesting sites needed by most species in our haste to make vast parking lots, shopping malls, lawns, and soccer fields.

Biodiversity is essential to the stability — indeed, the very existence — of most ecosystems.  We remove species from our nation’s ecosystems at the risk of their complete collapse.

I have not done justice to the compelling arguments elucidated by Tallamy.  I urge you to read this book yourself.  I especially wish to draw your attention to his description of the invasion of the Florida Everglades by Melaleuca quinquenervia (the paperbark tea tree) and of the island of Manhattan as an ecological sink.  In the meantime, next time I’ll cover what Tallamy considers “native,” and include a table (from Tallamy and others) of plants native to our own region, the Chesapeake Bay watershed.   ■

[This is the first part of a series on Bringing Nature Home:  How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, a book on the vital importance of native plants to local ecosystems by Douglas W. Tallamy.]

Read Part 2

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