Native Plants Hold Key To Our Survival

By Lillie Dorchak
I JUST PASSED a landscape crew cleaning up understory brush under a row of old pine trees at the edge of an empty residential lot on my road. New house coming. My mind said “There’s another habitat gone!”

All around us, natural places are being consumed by “development.” Here on Minneakoning Road in Raritan Township (NJ) where the newsroom is situated, developers of big box stores have been tearing away at the buffers on the old fairgrounds property, displacing wildlife that I enjoy watching: families of rabbits and groundhogs, bluebirds that nested at the buffer line, and who knows what else. Sad, but more than that, it’s a trend that may bite us back in the future. News about global warming has been depressing enough over the past decade, but it isn’t the only issue to be anxious about, if we want a future that isn’t drastically different from the present.

At the meeting of the Master Gardeners of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties recently, we all got a jolt from the speaker who came all the way from the University of Delaware to tell us about the loss of biodiversity on the planet.

Doug Tallamy is chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and he had a strong message to pass on: Saving biodiversity, and ourselves, is within the reach of every person with a garden, a plot of land or a vast estate.

We may be losing 100 species of birds a day due to the removal of forests in Brazil, here at home and across the globe. But understanding why that is so and how it will ultimately affect us needs some explanation. In short, we are breaking the fragile web of life.

Here’s the process. We all know we’re at the top of the food chain, consuming plants and animals, but what’s at the bottom of the chain?

Plants are the gatherers of the sun’s wonderful energy. Plants grow and in the process provide oxygen for every living thing. The plants also directly feed the next vital link in the chain, insects. Thousands of species of insects that eat plants in turn feed birds and their nestlings, reptiles and other animal life. We, at the top, survive on the levels bellow us. It’s a house of cards ready to fall if balance isn’t maintained.

“We haven’t shared the planet well with plants and animals. If they die, our support system dies too. The plants and animals aren’t optional; they provide air and clean water, create soil, buffer weather, recycle garbage and sequester carbon. Without all this, the ecosystem fails,” said Dr. Tallamy.

How gardeners and landowners can help keep balance locally is simple: plant native trees, shrubs and flowers instead of, or along with alien, exotic species in our yards and landscape. According to Dr. Tallamy, modern suburban landscapes, the places you and I live in, do not sustain our native insects and birds. How many of us have seen a wood thrush or brown towhee lately? Attribute that to the neat American lawn and our overall desire for clean lines and neat edges in the landscape. Thrushes like shrubby borders, understory plants and wood edges where cover is plentiful, in short, a natural, untamed habitat.

To grow a caterpillar of any specific species, you need native plants that the insects have evolved to digest for food. Plants from China or South Africa cannot fulfill this need because of varying plant chemicals. It’s like expecting a carnivore like a cat to live on vegetables alone, it doesn’t work.

Our most treasured butterflies and moths, which provide food for nestling birds, are “specialists,” needing a specific plant. When we fill our gardens with exotics, the space for growing plants they need is gone. When housing developments remove wildflowers, or cover over wetlands, valuable sustaining plants are gone along with the species of animals they support.

Here’s some startling numbers from Dr. Tallamy’s research. About 54% of the continental U.S. is covered with towns and cities. Another 41% is in agriculture. The remaining 5% is all that remains of natural, undisturbed wild places with intact systems of native plants. What is far more uprooting than those numbers is that the loss of natural ecosystems of plants and animals is matched by the same percentage of species loss, i.e., 50% loss of natural lands will show a 50% diminution of native plants and animals.

Dr. Tallamy wasn’t pessimistic about the future because he’s seen simple efforts to replant native species turn around the downward spiral. He believes if we can re-connect islands of biodiversity to each other by reforesting and planting natives, particularly in suburbia, there’s a chance more birds and insects will survive to repopulate. If we reduce lawn acreage and plant friendly landscapes of natives on our homegrounds, we can restore balance. Even on small lots, native shrubs can close in to buffer our yards from neighbors and invite wildlife to reproduce and live.

Here’s why planting natives can achieve a good turnaround for nature dramatically: native oak trees support 534 butterfly/moth species and willow and black cherry nearly as good, 455 species. Goldenrod will encourage 115 butterflies, asters, 112. Woody plants, you will also note, help out many more species than perennial wildflowers.

So, if you enjoy the croak of frogs, the song of birds and the flutter of butterflies, plant our native dogwood for its valuable berries on which birds thrive; don’t eradicate violets from your spring lawn, they are the only food for fritillary butterflies; let leaves fall and decompose as valuable duff for insects and wildflowers; grow a black cherry tree and welcome the tiger swallowtail butterfly. Build a balanced community, because Nature is what you make it!  –Hunterdon County Democrat

EDITOR’S NOTE: To get a more detailed and enlightening revelation on this topic, read Dr. Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, which will be released by Timber Press on Dec. 15. Visit or call (800) 327-5680 to order a copy.