The Natives are Hot for your Garden!

Written by Curator Emeritus Bob Glotzhober

No one ever accused me of being in tune with style, or hip, or cool, or whatever adjective might be right for the “in thing”. I’ve never been one to be synchronized with public opinion about style. But I’ve discovered a case where perhaps I really am in-sync with the latest craze. Or maybe I just happen to have been enthralled with this idea for years, and lots of other people are serendipitously discovering it now without any reflection on me at all. Regardless, there is a growing trend in gardening to go au naturel. See, there I go again. Some of you are thinking automatically of the first definition in the dictionary going naked. No way! The second definition means “in a natural state”. For gardeners at this point in time, that means selecting for flowers, shrubs and trees that are a natural part of the landscape of your region or state native species.

Gardening with native wildflowers is not new. A very small group has been doing some of this for many decades. For at least a couple of decades there have been organized groups such as The Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio, the Midwest Native Plant Society, or the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society and others across Ohio, and across the nation.

The movement of promoting native plants got a huge push in 2007, when entomologist Doug Tallamy published his book, Bringing Nature Home (re-published as an expanded edition in 2009). In this book, Tallamy reflects on a myriad of benefits for planting native species in your yard and garden. Not just wildflowers, but especially trees too. The short list of benefits includes native species being better adapted to the region and therefore requiring much less effort at watering, fertilizing etc. These are plants that have survived and thrived in our region for thousands of years without any help–and planted in the right soils with the appropriate amount of sun or shade, they will thrive in your garden too. Save water, save money on fertilizers and have less impact on the environment. Plus, with a little effort and planning, there are dozens of colors and times of blooming to pick from to make your garden attractive.

For many people, the biggest attraction for planting native flowers and trees relates to butterflies, moths and birds. Many people have noted that butterflies are a lot less common than they used to be. Some of the blame may be due to pesticide use, but a lot of it due to loss of habitat. We might draw butterflies in with a variety of flowers that they might sip nectar from, but each species will lay eggs on only certain host plants. A few butterfly species are generalists which will lay their eggs on a variety of species, but many will only lay their eggs on a single species of tree or wildflower or perhaps on members of a single genus of plants. If gardens are all cultivated, alien species, then the species many native butterflies need are absent in our ever expanding urban and suburban yards. For many years, most garden store plants have been alien species imported from overseas. I never quite understood why people preferred species not from North America in their gardens, rather than the native species we have already here. Perhaps the cow is right. The “grass” is always greener on the other side of the fence. But those alien species of plants don’t support our native butterflies and moths.

Equally problematic is that alien plants species have very few species of butterflies and moths and hence caterpillars, that use them at all. Scientific studies have shown that alien shrubs or tree might support one or two species of caterpillars, while native species might support 30 or 40–even more for oaks! These caterpillars are essential for feeding young birds. Even birds that are primarily seed eaters, feed their nestlings young caterpillars to provide critical protein for early growth. A pair of chickadees can feed more than 9,000 caterpillars to their clutch of four to six young over a period of 16 days! If you dont have the tree species or wildflower species that host a lot of native butterflies and moths–pretty soon you dont have the native birds either!

This blog could go on for a long, long time. But it makes more sense to refer you to a few other resources to dig into this subject. The best of these resources is the 2nd edition (2009) of Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. Get a copy from your local library, or purchase one for your own library. You will end up referring to it time and time again most likely! The July-August 2013 issue of Audubon magazine carried a great article on page 42 by Rene Ebersole, titled “Food Networks”. She quotes Tallamy time and time again and it is a very informative article.

Finally, Doug Tallamy wrote a summary article (attached here as a PDF file) about using native plants in your yard, and it is a great introduction to his book. The article, Welcoming Wildlife Into the Garden With Native Plants appeared in the Wild Ones Journal Volume 25, No 4. It is reprinted here by permission of Donna VanBuecken, Executive Director of the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers Ltd in Wisconsin. Since we have so greatly changed the landscape of America during the past couple of hundred years, butterflies and birds are struggling more and more to survive, let alone thrive. Tallamy says that with growing availability and opportunity to plant native trees, shrubs and flowers, “As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered and the ecological stakes have never been so high.”

Tallamy and others suggest that we have a moral obligation to create local oases with how we manage our yards. Read the articles, and let me know if you agree!  


Bob Glotzhober, Senior Curator of Natural History


Posted July 11, 2013

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