Benefits of Native Plants

With warmer months finally settling in and more time spent at home, many of us have been planting. Have you considered native plants when making your choices? In the past, beautiful and hearty native plant options, especially Long Island species, were not readily available but that has changed. There are numerous benefits to having these species in your garden. :

Native plant species attract and support native birds, pollinators and other wildlife. Douglas Tallamy, University of Delaware Professor, points out in his now infamous Bringing Nature Home, that a native oak tree can support 500 species of butterflies and moths. The caterpillars of these insects in turn provide a large volume of food for hungry chicks. Just think about it: a single nest of recently hatched chickadees will gobble up 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars while under their parents’ care. The juicy caterpillars (and many of the insects native plants support) are easy for adults to shove into nestlings mouths. It’s no wonder nearly all (call it 96%) terrestrial bird species depend on caterpillars as a major food source while nesting. And speaking of food for wildlife, an important part of garden maintenance is not removing seed heads on plants in fall/winter. They provide further sustenance for wildlife throughout the colder months until spring arrives.

In addition to food, native plant species provide many more of the shelter resources our wildlife requires than non-natives. Long Island’s warm-season grasses, for example, often grow in bunches, leaving open areas among them so that ground-nesting birds can escape from predators. Conversely, non-native species can cause harm. Note the heartbreaking effect of invasive black swallow-wort and pale swallow-wort on the Monarch butterfly. It is well known that Monarch butterfly eggs will hatch only from milkweed plants. When these butterflies instead lay eggs on swallow-wort, which are in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae) but native to Europe, the caterpillars will not eat them which results in wasted reproduction attempts that can cause a sink in Monarch populations. Swallow-wort can also outcompete the native milkweed.

Planting natives in turn supports greater biodiversity and abundance of native wildlife. When buying, look for straight species (non-cultivars – missing the “name in quotes” following the species name). While some cultivars are bred for traits in ways that result in plants almost identical to the straight species (from a pollinator benefit perspective), many do not have the nutritional value non-cultivars do and some are even toxic to wildlife. Native species also tend to require less maintenance than their non-native counterparts. Once established, native plants generally do not need regular (if any) watering. Natives do not rely on use of fertilizers and pesticides to thrive. A reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen found in fertilizers means less algae-producing runoff into our waterbodies. Native plants, in addition, do not require mowing as lawns do. Substituting native plants for part of your lawn, then, will yield more food and shelter for wildlife while decreasing water use and contamination of our water resources.

And if it’s only the bottom line that counts (though we know that for readers of Conservation News this is not the case!), keep in mind that maintaining a wetland or native grassland costs a fraction (about 15% over 20 years, according to one study by Applied Ecological Services) of lawn maintenance costs.