It’s suddenly spring, when homeowners turn into landscapers and head to Home Depot. Why not grab some colorful flowers, some shrubs, a tree? The choice of plants seems endless and easy — so easy that we might not realize the ripple effects the decision can have.
Long before people lived here — when “Northwood” was a forest rather than our neighborhood — this land was home to a complex community of animals and many dozens of species of plants that supported those animals. These “native” plants were — and are — fundamental to the ecosystems that today provide us humans with all of our needs, from fresh water and food to a stable climate.
Today, our human community here in North Four Corners is rich and diverse. But our natural community is impoverished, supporting just a fraction of the species of butterflies, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals that it once did. Why? Because the land that is now North Four Corners supports so few of the native plants these animals rely upon. After we cleared the forest and built our houses, we replaced our natural community of plants with species from far-flung places — yew from Japan, lilac from Europe, crape myrtle from India (all of which can be found right here in our own yards). The list of plants from the “global garden” goes on and on. And while this may seem benign, it is not. Because these common landscape plants did not evolve together with our native animals, few are of much use to our wildlife.
In more recent times, here on Belton Road our yard was once patrolled for insects by an American toad and, on warm evenings, we could hear the chorus of gray tree frogs, predicting a summer storm. Then a neighbor two streets over filled in a small wetland, cut down trees, and voilà — no more toads and frogs! (I wonder if the little brown bats we used to see depended upon those other species, too? They, also, are gone now. Could this be a reason why our mosquito population is so high?)
When we see trees felled and wetlands plowed under, we might reassure ourselves that the animals will just move on, find another place to live. But we can no longer be so sure: Landscape ecologists agree that only three to five percent of land in the United States’ lower 48 States remains as undisturbed habitat for wildlife. As etymologist and author Douglas Tallamy says in his remarkable book, Bringing Nature Home: “Unless we modify the places we live, work, and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear forever. This is not speculation. It is a prediction backed by decades of research on species-area relationships by ecologists who know of what they speak.”
We live busy and complicated lives. I know that some won’t consider it a matter of importance whether our children hear the whinny of a screech owl at night, encounter a box turtle in the wild, or see a huge cecropia silk moth fluttering near the porch light — once-common occurrences that are rare these days. But I can’t help but believe that without these simple connections to the world around us, our lives are less rich, less fulfilled, less complete. And beyond this, we need nature — including Earth’s full complement of species — to provide the services that make our lives possible.
Standing at the Home Depot on this fine spring day (or better yet, Behnke’s, Stadler Nurseries, or Adkins Arboretum), we have an important decision. We can pick up another yew or crepe myrtle or some horticultural wonder from South America. Or we can ask for and choose plants that naturally belong in our region, many of which are just as beautiful as and even easier to care for than imported plants.
Making that choice, plant by plant, we can help our yards to become a haven for the species of wildlife that once called North Four Corners home. We can knit together our small backyards, quarter-acre by quarter-acre, and invite wildlife back into our lives — for our own pleasure, the benefit of our kids and for the future of our planet.
[This is a new column by Clare Nielsen Neal. Clare is a 15-year resident on Belton Road, works for the global NGO Conservation International, and heads up the “Kids Reforesting Forest Knolls” project at our local elementary school. If you’d like to learn and do more with native plants, please contact Clare. She is interested in forming a Northwood Native Plant Network to share information, plants (she reports that she has too many), and hope for the future. She can be reached at [email redacted]. ■
An easy way to start native-plant gardening is to tuck a few natives into an established flower bed or border. Try golden ragwort, which is much more beautiful that its name suggests! One of the earliest bloomers (mid-March), it is covered with clusters of bright yellow blooms that resemble small daisies. Golden ragwort grows about knee-high and is easy to please with some sun and somewhat moist soil. When happy, it spreads rapidly to form a mounded, nearly evergreen groundcover with heart-shaped leaves.
If you have a spot to try golden ragwort, contact Clare (email redacted), who has plants to spare! Find out more about native plants at www.plantanative.com [website inactive as of 2/2107].
© 2012 NFCCA [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/nn201204h.html]