Many of us have heard, at least peripherally, about the importance of native plants. Rarely are we given the details of why they are so important. So, let’s learn about how native plants support our ecosystems and why it’s more important than ever that we all do our part. But first, a definition! A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without human introduction.
This is the bedrock on which our ecosystems rest. The plants, insects and the wildlife that feed on them have evolved together. The insects have developed to resist the plants’ chemical defenses and the birds and other creatures that eat the insects have done the same. When we import plants from other ecological regions (most often Asia) for their decorative properties and insect resistance we are depriving native birds of an important food source that is required for their young. Over 96% of terrestrial North American bird species feed insects to their young; a single clutch of chickadees will consume around 9000 caterpillars between hatching and fledging. Our native oaks support over 550 species of butterflies and moths (and their caterpillars) versus a non-native gingko tree that supports only 5!
Importance of Urban and Suburban Landscapes
So you may be thinking, well what can my little yard do? You don’t need acres and acres of trees and meadows to support birds, butterflies and other pollinators! Private residential properties can provide important corridors of habitat needed by migratory species between larger natural protected areas as well as providing for healthy resident birds. A recent study in Cook County Illinois found that streets with bird-friendly yards had almost twice as many species as those without. The study also showed that the presence of a variety of native trees provides habitat complexity and is crucial to making these yards more wildlife friendly. The National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program’s research has confirmed that property owner commitment to providing the necessary elements for sustainability makes a real difference.
Ready to Get Started?
There are plenty of resources available to help you make great native choices for your yard. Two of the best are from Audubon with its Plants for Birds website and the National Wildlife Foundation’s Native Plant Finder. Happy planting!