Why Plant Natives?

Ask a Master Gardener… Native Plant of the Month

In the last few years, I am happy to report, I have noticed a great “generalizing” of folks who are starting to consider using native plants within their gardens, which formerly consisted exclusively of hybridized cultivars. Some might report fewer bees or butterflies in their areas, or “seems like I used to see more songbirds” around. So, my conversations have shifted from “Why plant natives?” to “Where should I put them?” and “What should I plant?”

What to plant? Look at your garden…check out the soil and light conditions. There’s always that old saying, “nature abhors a vacuum”. You will find a native plant that will grow in your location, and probably with a lot less fuss. Oodles of native trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and wildflowers exist that are absolutely vital to the well being of our insect and bird populations.. In fact, the list is too long for this column. Instead, I’ll give you this book title: Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin by Lynn M. Steiner. It contains extensive information on native plants, as well as websites, and other books that you can use for reference.

Your plants are at the bottom of the food chain. Everything else, insects, birds, butterflies, amphibians, and mammals, depend on plants either directly or indirectly. These native animals were co-created with our native plants and have developed a reciprocal relationship with each other over thousands and thousands of years. Take our birds, for a good example. Native plants provide a mix of seeds and insects for birds that are just the right size, with just the right nutrition, just when the birds need them. When they need them may be when the birds are feeling their nestlings, when they’re migrating south, or in the dead of winter.

Insects, the next step up the food chain, provide vital nutrition for many species… including other insects. Most insects prefer their native host plants, and in fact, often lack the enzymes needed to digest non-native plants. Thus the non-native plant materials provide little or no benefit to native wildlife.

We frequently hear about the rainforests that are being cleared and the many plants that are going extinct. What we don’t hear about is how this continent of ours has been plowed under, and no one is quite sure how many plants have gone extinct. Many that have not yet gone extinct have been reduced to such an extent that they have become ecologically insignificant. In other words, there are not enough of certain plants around to support that healthy population of the birds and butterflies that we all enjoy so much.

A major way that we can restore our native wildlife is for each of us to plant some natives. The easiest way to do that is to devote a “chunk” of our land to a native area. Again, just look at your space! Did you loose a shrub rose last winter? Pop a native rose in its place. Want to be more hands-on? Nurture a native that is threatened by extinction. Plant woodland natives along your tree line…you will extend the sight line of your garden. How about using that strip along the edge of the garage? The only time you go there is to mow anyway! Our native songbirds will thank you!
Marianne Mueller, Master Gardener, M&M Greenhouse, Barnes, WI. Please continue to send your questions to [email protected] Please reference “MG” so the junk mail filter doesn’t swallow it up! We will get to all your questions in future issues.