In my post, Do you have a plastic plant in your yard? I wrote about how our native wildlife needs native plants to survive. I also wrote how our landscapes can be excellent sources of these native plants for our local wildlife, if we choose the right ones.
Well today, I put my money where my mouth is and look at the plants in my yard. Do I have the right ones?
Why you might ask?
The long and the short is that all life including wildlife is fueled by the energy from the sun. What it comes down to is how the energy from the sun gets into our wildlife. It is as simple as:
- Plants create energy from the sun,
- Insects (for the most part) eat plant,
- Everybody else (birds, mammals, reptiles) eats the insects.
That’s it. Take the insects out of the equation and we have a problem.
Sure there are exceptions, some mammals eat plants, birds certainly eat berries for energy, and predators eat other animals. However, pound for pound it is the insects that do the transfer of energy from the plants to everybody else.
What bugs am I feeding
So when I ask what my yard is doing to support wildlife, I really am asking am I feeding the native insects that our native wildlife feed on?
You may be going, you mean you want bugs eating your plants???
I can hear the revulsion and uproar. I mean maybe you don’t like bugs. I get that. I don’t particularly like most myself, but I do like our native birds, mammals, and even reptiles (I do admit garter snakes are about it in my area). And who doesn’t like butterflies?
No, I won’t be out collecting Emerald Ash Borer and bringing them home. But almost all NATIVE insects feeding on NATIVE landscape plants don’t eat enough to even be noticeable. Its when we have either non-native insects or non-native plants when we usually have problems.
It’s all about balance
It’s when the natural balance of insects and predators (i.e. birds, other insects) gets out of whack when you see plants that are seriously damaged by insects. By keeping all of the different types of insects around you are actually less likely to have large populations of insects that cause lots of damage to your prized garden plants.
When is a native not native?
When considering if your landscape plants are supporting local wildlife, we have to consider what is a native plant to your area. I have always known in the back of my mind that those blue Colorado spruce I have may be native to the US but they are certainly not native to my area of Illinois.
I have often patted myself on the back for using native plants, but have I really been fooling myself?
Where are the native plants in my landscape really native to?
Here are some of the plants in my yard that are native to the US but are ALIEN to Illinois and thus really don’t support biodiversity here:
These four grow out west in Colorado area or Pacific Northwest and probably do not share too many plant specific insects with the Prairie of Illinois:
- Colorado spruce (Picea pungens)
- Vanderwolf limber pine (Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’)
- Bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata)
- Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
These three are from the southeastern US. There might be some bugs that would eat these in my area, but I don’t see a whole lot of these plants when I go for a walk in the woods by my house.
- Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
- Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
- Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Here is the list that actually are native to the Illinois and just might be pulling their ecological weight
- Skyline Thornless Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Skycole’)
- Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
- Whitespire Senior birch (Betula populifolia)
- Fox Valley River birch (Betula nigra)
- White pine (Pinus strobus)
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Native Monarda (Monarda fistulosa)
- Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternafolia)
- Redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
- Cloud Nine Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
So how did I do?
The long and short of it is, the best way to support the wildlife that is native to your area is with plants that are native to your area. So when considering new plants, especially the bigger, long lived ones like trees, considering if it is native my area is a now a key factor in choosing it. No not the only one, but a major one.
For instance, In a past post, A case for Native plants, I mentioned how the zebra swallowtail caterpillar’s ONLY host plant was the Paw Paw tree (Asimina triloba). The Paw Paw tree is native to my area, it is also a cool looking tree with tropical foliage that produces a tasty fruit in the fall.
I must add that I am now the proud owner of two Paw Paw trees.
Maybe the next plant you put in your landscape can be a native from your area too.
If you want help in finding the right tree,shrub or perennial for your yard check out the excellent plant native plant search at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center.