Why native plants matter

springJane Goodall writes in her book, Seeds of Hope, “Almost everyone I meet wants to save wild animals and insects, but they often don’t realize how important it is to preserve the anchors of the wildlife community — the native plants….It is exciting to think that our gardens can be part of a growing effort to restore health to our planet.”

That sums up the way I feel about my garden. It is not merely an ornamental space in front of my house, but a tiny piece of a much larger undertaking involving thousands of people around the world who are creating spaces where wildlife and birds can thrive.

Our species has spent many decades disrupting the ecosystem, cultivating invasive plants that out-compete natives, and waging war against the insects. Now we are waking up to the damage we’ve done. Bees, our most important pollinators, are dying off. Monarch butterflies are dwindling. Many bird species are in decline. Part of the reason for that is the lack of insects. Birds can’t exist on seeds and berries alone: they need insect protein. And baby songbirds eat nothing but insects. And what do insects need? Native plants.

In a backyard experiment, Doug Tallamy recorded the number of caterpillars a pair of chickadees brought back to the nest. Both parents took turns feeding their chicks, bringing one caterpillar to the hungry nestlings every 3 minutes, 14 hours a day, for two and a half weeks. Tallamy discovered that, “an incredible 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars are required to make one clutch of chickadees.”

Native trees, shrubs and other plants provide food for those caterpillars. There is a direct link between plants and biodiversity, or the lack of it. In that sense, Tallamy says, gardening is like playing god. “What we plant in our landscapes determines what can live in our landscapes.”

A lawn bordered by roses, hydrangeas and other exotic plants is not going to support many caterpillars and other insects, and therefore not much bird life. A garden with a native oak and some manzanita, buckwheat, and seaside daisies is going to be a haven for birds.

The chickadee family is just one example of the link between native plants and wild creatures. There are many more, and in the days to come, I’ll be telling more stories about the critical connection between native plants and animals on this blog. We have to stop thinking of plants as merely decorative and start thinking of them, in Goodall’s words, as the “anchors” of our ecosystem. Plants have a job to do: to support life on earth by feeding other animals. Let’s allow plants to do their job by supporting the cultivation and restoration of native plants, wherever we live. The chickadees will thank us.




T and I were drinking coffee outside of Companion Bakery when a Brewer’s blackbird alighted on the planter in front of us and regarded us with his bright yellow eye. We immediately noticed that the bird had something stuck to his foot: a three-inch piece of plastic with a snarl of wire attached. “Is that a plastic fork?” T asked in disbelief. Wherever the bird hopped, the shard of plastic went with him. He turned his head to peck at the alien object, trying to pry it loose, but the wire was deeply embedded in his talon.

I took off my sweater and approached him, hoping to drop it over the bird and remove the object, but he flew off. He fluttered back to us a second time and I threw some pastry crumbs on the ground, trying to lure him over to my improvised sweater-net, but he flew off again, trailing the object behind him, and this time he didn’t return.

It should have been the easiest thing in the world to rescue this blackbird, yet it was impossible. One of the most frustrating things about trying to help wild animals is that they don’t know we’re trying to help them. So we do our best, and if our best isn’t good enough, we forgive ourselves and we try again, another day, with another blackbird.



Does any creature wait more patiently than a dog? Some dogs wait for hours for their humans to come home, listening for the sound of a footfall, a car engine, a key in the lock. Dogs know how to wait because they must. They have thousands of years of practice at it.

Some dogs are famous for waiting, like Hachiko, an Akita who is still remembered in Japan for appearing at a train station every evening for nine years to wait—in vain—for his person. And then there’s Argos, the most patient dog in literature, who so yearned for one last glimpse of his beloved master that he waited 20 long years for Odysseus to finally come home.

This beautiful saluki didn’t have long to wait until her human came out of the grocery store, but with her chin resting on the seat back, eyes fastened on the door of the market, I could tell she was prepared to wait an eternity, if that’s what it took.