What’s so special about native plants?

By Janet Carroll | Jan 25, 2012

Volunteers came to the Mukilteo Sno-Isle Library on the Dec.17 to prepare the soil for planting the Library Wildlife Garden.  We are planting native plants in the garden, and we were asked by some of the volunteers why we would be planting native plants exclusively.  

First of all, what does “native” actually mean?  We generally think of natives as a plant that has evolved in an area over a long period of time, probably before European settlement.

The main reason we are planting these native plants is that we want people to learn about them and to be able to see them so they will know how beautiful these plants can be and how they might be used in their own garden.

The best reason for using native plants is that they support the diversity of other life on our planet. Look around and it’s not hard to see that habitat loss has the greatest impact on wildlife everywhere.  

Lawns, for example, take up about 20 million acres of land in the United States.  In terms of wildlife, it is almost biological desert.  Don’t think I am trying to make you feel bad because you have a lawn.  People like to have lawns.  

However, according to Ken Druse, author of the book, “The Natural Habitat Garden” if every gardener gave just 1/10th of an acre back to native plants, the net gain would be 3.8 million acres of native plants.  

That doesn’t seem to me to be asking a whole lot.  If you don’t have 1/10th of an acre, you can create a natural plant community in whatever area of your garden works.

So why would you want to do that? I’ll focus on the relationship between plants and wildlife, because I don’t think many people really understand what this is all about.  

We all love the beautiful gardens that can be created using exotic ornamental plants. We see wildlife in those gardens, right?  What exactly do native plants do for wildlife that our exotic imports don’t?

Wildlife need food, water, cover and places to raise young.  Plants play a role in all of these, but most important they provide food.  Some animals eat plants; some eat the insects that eat the plants; and some eat the sap, pollen or nectar from the plants.  

Many of our wildlife species, including insects, do not eat ornamental plants, limiting the amount of food available.  They do not eat the plants because they do not have the chemical makeup that our native insects or wildlife have evolved to require.  

If there is no food for insects and for wildlife in our gardens, then our native populations struggle to find food elsewhere.  

Many insects are “imported” with the imported plants, and they eat the plants and thrive.  As we have found with noxious weeds, trying to control imported insects is a difficult task.  

Many of our native bird species eat fruits and berries.  I have seen birds eating berries of plants unknown to me, but generally as a last resort because they do not provide needed nutrition.   

Some of the ornamental plants provide nesting habitat and shelter, but many do not.  Butterfly bush, an ornamental plant provides pollen and nectar for insects and butterflies, but not nesting habitat or shelter.  

As a matter of fact, butterfly bush is considered a noxious weed by many jurisdictions because it has escaped into all sorts of areas, pushing out our native plants.

There are interactions of fungus and insects with plants, pollinators with flowers, and birds with structural habitat that can only be rebuilt by planting native plants. Using native plants as a substitute for exotic ornamental plantings can help to reverse the trend of species loss.

If we could just modify the places we live to meet the needs of our local insects and wildlife, we gardeners could be the key to sustaining wildlife species into the future.

Janet Carroll is a member of the Mukilteo Wildlife Habitat Project, which has met its goal of certifying Mukilteo as a community wildlife habitat.

For more information on the project, go to www.mukilteowildlife.org. If you have questions e-mail Carroll at mukilteowildlife@gmail.com.
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.