Native (or indigenous) plants are ones that grow naturally in a place. Here in North America and specifically in the Northeast, we have an especially large number of plant species that have been growing here long before European settlers came. The Native Americans knew and used this wide variety of plants for food and medicine and created a rich body of knowledge about them that they passed down through the generations.
There are many reasons that native plants are important to us, but they are absolutely essential to support our native insects and birds. Many native insects can draw nectar from exotic plants brought from Europe, Africa and Asia, but they cannot lay eggs and their larvae cannot feed on those plants. The prolific number of species of insects native to the Northeast depend entirely on native plants, so it is important to make sure the areas where these plants can grow and thrive are maintained and even increased.
Native plants are under pressure from exotic plants that have become invasive. These plants often have no predators outside of their natural habitats and so when they are let loose in new places, they can grow unchecked and take over the space where natives used to grow. In backyard and roadside landscapes, often people prefer either perfectly groomed lawns or exotic “interesting” plants from other places. These landscapes take the place of native plant habitats that offer many more benefits to wildlife.
Our Native Wildlife Garden at the Garrison School is planted entirely with native plants and these plants support wildlife in many ways. The plants host our native insects by offering a protected place for them to lay eggs and then providing the specific food that hatchling caterpillars or larvae need to grow and thrive; they cannot survive on exotic plants or mown lawns. Insect larvae metamorphose into wasps, bees, butterflies and moths and by drawing nectar from flowers, they carry pollen from one to another making it possible for plants to reproduce and proliferate. The insects are essential to the survival of the same plants that provide them the food for their own survival.
Native plants are also essential to native birds. They provide habitat and safe cover for the birds and places for them to nest, but also rich and nutritious seeds and berries for them to eat throughout the year, even in winter. But there is another important way that birds are supported by natives. Because birds have evolved to feed off native insects, native plants not only increase the health of the insect population, but provide rich and nutritious protein for birds. A bird in flight can sometimes eat 700 or more caterpillars in a single day. The birds depend on the insects and the insects depend on the plants so we can begin to see the interconnections playing out right here in one little garden. The Native Wildlife Garden provides us a window into this wonderful web of life and helps us learn and appreciate the beauty, diversity and value of native plants. This tiny healthy habitat can inspire the whole community to love and foster these important landscapes and the wildlife that depends upon them.
Learn more about Native Plants:
Brown, Carole Sevilla. Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
Darke, Rick and Doug Tallamy. The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden. Portland: Timber Press, 2014.
"Garden for Wildlife: Making Wildlife Habitat at Home." National Wildlife Federation. National Wildlife Federation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
Nowak, Mariette. "Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard with Native Plants." Wild Ones. Wildones.org, 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
Raver, Anne. “To Feed the Birds, First Feed the Bugs.” New York Times 6 March 6, 2008. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
Tallamy, Doug. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
"The Native Plant Center." Westchester Community College. Westchester Community College, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
Anne Symmes is a horticulturalist and landscape designer. She works as Horticulturalist and Garden Educator at the Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield in Hyde Park. Bellefield, an 18th century house, now serves as the headquarters of the National Park Service.