JAMESTOWN, NEW YORK (July 19, 2023) -- Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County’s Master Gardener, Pat Smith, is excited to share Why Native Plants Matter!
Why Native Plants Matter
There is a growing interest in planting “Natives” and a number of resources to help gardeners select native trees, shrubs and plants. Before we discuss why native plants matter, let’s better define what we mean by the term. Natives are plants that evolved over thousands of years in a particular region. They have evolved and adapted to an area’s environmental conditions – its climate, geography and soil without human intervention. They occur naturally in a region. If you google “what is a native plant?” you will get a definition such as “native plants are the indigenous terrestrial and aquatic species that have evolved and occur naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, and habitat. Species native to North America are generally recognized as those occurring on the continent prior to European settlement”.
It makes sense to plant natives from both a micro and macro perspective. As gardeners we may choose natives because they are hardy, grow well and require less water, pruning and artificial fertilizer. In essence they save time and work for the individual gardener. Initially I began selecting native perennials for just those reasons. With a minimal amount of work, I could have a beautiful garden.
As I learned more about the benefits of native plants, I had one of those “Ah ha!” moments. This wasn’t just me saving time and conserving water, this was me in one small way helping to preserve biodiversity. Natives provide food and habitat for wildlife from foraging birds to pollinating insects which are an integral part of the food web. They increase biological diversity and are sustainable. Without natives and the insects they co-evolved with local birds cannot survive. When one steps back and looks at the issue from this much broader perspective and the implications for the entire ecosystem, it becomes clear that we are more than happy gardeners, we are naturalists, conservationists and stewards of the land. It’s an awesome responsibility. What we plant not only provides a habitat for birds, bees, butterflies but for us as well.
Douglas W. Tallamy in his book Nature’s Best Hope, outlines a grassroots approach encouraging homeowners everywhere to “turn their yards into conservation corridors that provide wildlife habitats”. He operates from the premise that a healthy ecosystem built upon native plants produces oxygen, captures carbon, builds topsoil and prevents floods. According to Professor Tallamy, Ninety-five percent of the country has been logged, tilled, drained, grazed, paved or otherwise developed. We have purposefully imported thousands of species of plants, insects and diseases from other lands, which have decimated many native plant communities on which local food webs depend, and we have carved the natural world into tiny remnants, each too small and too isolated to be effective. He makes the case that we need natural habitats outside of parks and preserves to sustain the ecosystem. Since 78% of property in the US is privately owned, that means (we) you and I need to step in, or up to meet the challenge by planting a diversity of native plants.
His books are a call to arms for every gardener and a plea that landscaping become synonymous with ecological restoration.
Professor Tallamy offers a number of relatively easy to implement suggestions for individual action. Below are a few of his recommendations.
Shrink the lawn
One of his goals is to get people to convert half of their lawn to productive native plant communities. Begin with a small section 3x5 or 4x8 or 10x12 and turn it into a native garden. Plant an oak tree or even better two or three.
Remove invasive species
It’s time to re-evaluate our love affair with alien ornamentals such as multi-flora roses, Japanese honeysuckle, Bradford pear and Norway maples.
Many of the ornamentals that are used in home landscaping are aliens – imported from other countries and other ecosystem. Often they are invasive and can choke out the natives and alter the balance of the ecosystem. Many insects can only digest the native plants they co-evolved with. If the native plants are no longer there, the insects starve and become extinct. Most of us do not have a love affair with insects, but their importance to life as we know it cannot be overstated. Of the 4 million or so insect species on earth only about 1 percent interact with humans in negative ways, while 99% of the insect species are beneficial as pollinators, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil and provide food directly or indirectly for most other animals.
If you have questions about invasives, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has a list of invasive species. They stress that Invasive species can harm natural communities and systems by “out-competing native species, reducing biological diversity, altering community structure and changing ecosystems in some cases. They threaten our food supply, our parks, gardens, recreation resources, as well as animal and human health.”
Many home builders and homeowners are not aware of the dangers of alien plants and shrubs and proudly plant bayberry, honeysuckle, burning bush or other invasives. You may wonder how the trimmed and tidy bushes on your property are invasive. Since their plant seeds are distributed by birds, wind or humans, this allows the seed to move great distances from your property to other areas disrupting the natural habitat, Others have aggressive root systems that spread long distances from a single plant.
Plant keystone genera
Within natives, not all are created equal. There is the concept of keystone species – one species can be important to the survival of many. They are organisms that help hold the system together. When it comes to keystone species of trees Oak, Cherry and Willow can support more species than Chestnut, Beech or Walnut.
All plants are not created equal, particularly in their ability to support wildlife. Most of our native plant eaters are not able to eat alien plants and we are replacing native with alien species.
Some ecosystems may not be able to adapt to environmental changes if their keystone species disappeared. That could spell the end of the ecosystem or allow an invasive species to take over and dramatically shift the ecosystem in a new direction.
Build a conservation hard scape
Simple things like installing window well covers will keep toads, frogs, voles from falling in your window wells and starving to death.
Install multiple small bee hotels instead of one large one.
Install motion sensor lights, so they only come on when needed. Home Security lights are deadly to nocturnal insects.
Refrain from chemical sprays and artificial fertilizers
This is a topic of much debate and is worthy of a separate article outlining the differences between chemical and organic fertilizers and pesticides, their pluses and minuses.
Resources on Natives
In researching information for this article, I used a number of resources and have compiled a brief listing which readers can use as a starting point for their own exploration. I was intrigued by Prof. Tallamy ‘s books and able to attend via Zoom a workshop sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie and Otsego Counties entitled Bringing Nature Home to Our Gardens and Communities. He also has a number of YouTube videos and is a very engaging speaker.
It is in our best interest to understand how the plants, shrubs and trees we put in the ground contribute to a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Each of us, by what we choose to plant can make a small but significant difference by gardening for the community good.
Resource List – Native Plants – compiled by Patricia Smith, MG Volunteer- June 2023
Tallamy, Douglas ,W, 2019. Nature’s Best Hope -A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Tallamy, Douglas W. 2007. Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with NATIVE PLANTS, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
WYN Native Plant Collaborative, www.wnynativeplants.org - has very comprehensive list of western NY trees shrubs, plants
Western New York Guide to Native Plants for Your Garden, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper 2014, www.bnriverkeeper.org
Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy fact sheets
Cornell University Cooperative Extension Chautauqua County Master Gardner pamphlets
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation www.dec.ny.gov –
Native Flowers for Gardening and Landscaping
Invasive species Regulations
Homegrown National Park.org is a grassroots call-to-action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants and creating new ecological networks
Native Plant Finder www.nwf.org
Native Plant Societies of the USA = closest seems to by Finger Lakes Native Plant Society,
www.plantnative.org a state by state listing of native plants with pictures
Where to purchase native plants:
firstname.lastname@example.org – No retail showroom, but can order by phone or email.
Most local nurseries have some native plants.
The Master Gardener Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County (CCE-Chautauqua). CCE-Chautauqua is a subordinate governmental agency with an educational mission that operates under a form of organization and administration approved by Cornell University as agent for the State of New York. It is tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The association is part of the national cooperative extension system, an educational partnership between County, State, and Federal governments. As New York’s land grant university Cornell administers the system in this state. Each Cornell Cooperative Extension association is an independent employer that is governed by an elected Board of Directors with general oversight from Cornell. All associations work to meet the needs of the counties in which they are located as well as state and national goals. For more information, call 716-664-9502 or visit our website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua. Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.
Last updated July 19, 2023