‘Go Native’: Create Wildlife Sanctuary On Your Property

By Pam Baxter
IN TERMS of biodiversity and ecosystems, the bad news is that 41 percent of land in the United States is devoted to agriculture, 55 percent has gone to cities and suburbs, and only 4 percent remains undisturbed.

As housing developments, shopping centers and business complexes continue to be built, wildlife that already feels the pressure of dwindling habitat will feel it even more, and their numbers will continue to decrease.

But hidden in those statistics is some very good news: as homeowners, we have direct influence on much of that 55 percent. We can turn the typical wildlife “desert” surrounding our houses into a thriving wildlife sanctuary. And it’s not that hard.

Barb Elliot and Edie Parnum, creators of Valley Forge Audubon’s Backyards for Nature program, have been spreading the word about the deeper importance of native plants to our local ecology.

I thought that I fully understood why it’s important to “go native” in the landscape. Without any natural deterrents, many alien plant species have proven to be invasive thugs, strong-arming native plants out of existence.

Not all exotic plants do this. (daffodils and lilacs pretty much stay put.) But Norway maples and winged euonymus, for example—commonly planted in suburban yards—have escaped into our woodlands, in some areas to the exclusion of most everything else.

What I learned is that there’s much more at stake than the decrease of native plant populations. Native plant species are vital to our environment because they supply the food—particularly leaves and nectar—that supports a large and intricate web of wildlife. Even more, through millions of years of adaptations our native plants and animals co-evolved, with the result that many species are dependent on just one plant for their existence.

By now, people around the world know that preserving bamboo groves is essential for the survival of the Giant Panda Bear, which eats only bamboo. A lesser number may know that the Monarch Butterfly is adapted to use only the milkweed plant (Asclepias species) as the host for its young (caterpillars).

Fewer still know that the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly lays its eggs on the native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). I had no idea, though there are spicebush and sassafras in the hedgerows bordering my yard. These and other caterpillars provide the primary food that many birds feed to their newly hatched young.

Where do homeowners fit in? The ornamental trees and shrubs we’ve become used to planting provide little, if any, food for our native wildlife. And our lawns, which mostly support Japanese beetle grubs, require immense time, energy and often herbicides to maintain. Native plants generally require no fertilizer, pesticides or supplemental water.

There are wonderful native plants to choose from, and they’re becoming easier to find. Some nurseries specialize in natives, and in May and September, you can take advantage of native plant sales in our area.

For more information on the importance of native plants, Elliot and Parnum recommend Doug Tallamy’s new book, “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.–Chester DailyLocal.com