Embracing Native Plants

Here, among the songbirds, it’s easy to forget the threat that development poses to wildlife, but nature is in trouble.

Why Prioritizing Native Plant Habitats is So Important

By Lindsey Cline

It’s early morning; heavy dew casts a silver shine on the grass as the soft sun’s rays emerge over the woodland tree line. A group of Carolina chickadees flit up and down honey locust trees. They flicker from the trees to the birdfeeders, regularly startled by squirrels and bossy blue jays. On other days, white-throated sparrows sing all afternoon, a fox slips along the garden edge, and rabbits nest under a ninebark shrub.

The yard in this scene is not unique; a standard suburban 100’-by-50’ with a small patio. What brings wildlife to the backdoor are native plant garden beds 12 feet deep and running the length of space. 

Here, among the songbirds, it’s easy to forget the threat that development poses to wildlife, but nature is in trouble: the native bee population declined by 90 percent in the past decade and more than half of bird populations are dwindling. While the majestic Monarch butterfly’s endangerment demands headlines, others, like the sturgeon, which were once so numerous that European settlers could “walk across the James River on their backs,” and the little brown bat, which hibernates in Blue Ridge Mountain caves, face extinction. 

Gone is the assumption that “protected” spaces can save the wildlife we have left…much of Virginia’s 16 percent of land protected from development lacks prime habitat as it remains open for logging and agriculture. What if we welcomed insects, songbirds, amphibians, and reptiles into our developed lands?

The revolution is here, fueled by well-gloved gardeners and well-aware homeowners creating wildlife habitats in their backyards, community parks, and locally owned fields. 

Apex predators require vast wild tracts to roam, but many species—especially the foundation of the food web—can thrive in neighborhood yards. And the backyards we have!

More than half of Virginia’s land is urban, suburban, or metro-adjacent. Virginians managed 1.7 million acres of turfgrass lawn in 2004 (last year of available data); we can estimate at least 2 million acres today. Imagine some of these lawns, which offer no ecological value, as gardens that restore essential bonds between flora and fauna.

The key to creating those habitats? 

Native plants.

Native plants excel at supporting wildlife: acorns for squirrels, fruit and berries for bears and foxes, cover for rabbits and fawns, and nesting trees for birds and owls. Native plants allow wildlife to breed, feed, and live. 

One can’t explain the importance of natives without diving into the world of insects. Insects, the foundation of a rich food web, nourish birds, fish, frogs, toads, salamanders, and bats. They are indispensable to ecosystems: insects decompose organisms, recycle nutrients, pollinate plants, and disperse seeds. Insects have spun a web of mutually beneficial relationships within ecosystems, particularly with native plants.

Insects adapted over time to exploit plant qualities during each stage of their lifecycle: hiding places for eggs, foliage for young caterpillars to eat, and nectar and pollen for adults. This dance is intricate—insects must time their lifecycles to correspond with their hosts. This process led the majority of insects to evolve so deliberately that they rely on a handful of plant lineages. Because of this specificity, insects can’t quickly adapt to non-natives. 

Entomologist Doug Tallamy proved that insect populations decline without native plants. Famed biologist E.O. Wilson explained that if insects vanished, flowering plants would follow, then reptiles, amphibians, birds, and finally mammals.

The remaining debate, with experts on both sides, is the ease of establishing native gardens. Some claim that natives require less care and maintenance; others argue that unstoppable deer herds and infuriating groundhogs prefer them. 

Implementing this new garden ethic falls in all directions—obstacles aren’t more significant than “traditional” gardens; they’re simply different. We must become the first-time hosta-obsessed gardeners we once were—learning new plant communities. While culture now denounces pesticides and praises pollinator gardens, the lack of practical advice and hands-on resources, not to mention the dearth of native plants themselves, can leave us overwhelmed with the task of implementing our new-found inspiration, especially if our marching orders include the astounding “saving nature.”

But gardeners are an optimistic bunch. As Yiyun Li writes, “One garden with the same unblinded hope and the same willingness to concede as one lives, always ready to say:
If not now, later; if not this year, next year.”

It’s possible to delight in the wildlife that garden sanctuaries support. More than once, my toddler watched with wonder as a box turtle marched from one garden bed to another. Despite my garden failures, Carolina wrens still nest in the wild grape vines and painted lady butterflies cover white snakeroot drifts. Whether our endeavors can reverse the tide remains to be seen, but the evidence makes a strong case that it’s worth our efforts.

We’re now challenging presumptions that to garden, we must hail overtly blooming peonies and roses. Instead, we might try delicate shooting stars in spring, striking purple baptisia for summer blooms, or pair rich violet asters with deep golds of goldenrods in fall. 

Nature deserves to exist on its own merits, but we can keep high expectations around our homes and relish in our desire for beauty. While re-creating indigenous plant communities offers maximum habitat, native plants anywhere contribute to the effort and can work for tidy front entrances, side yards, or around entertaining areas. 

Try them—you may (or may not) become a morning birdwatcher, but you will open the door to a stunning garden and a movement of new and vital wildlife refuges.  

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