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.

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