Native Plants: Why (and How) to Use Them
By choosing to use native plants in your yard, you will play a critical role in restoring the natural ecology of the area. Native plants provide food and habitat to local insects and birds and help counter the loss of biodiversity occurring at an alarming rate over the past decade.
What are native plants, and why are they so important?
Native plants have adapted over thousands of years to growing in a particular region and have co-evolved to form specialized relationships with native wildlife. These plants provide food for plant-eating insects, which in turn become food for native predatory insects, birds, and mammals.
Caterpillars, for example, play a critical role in this system. They are a very nutritious food source -- 95% of birds feed their young with caterpillars due to their high protein and nutrient levels. Caterpillars are host plant specialists and are only able to eat the leaves of specific native plants.
The same goes for other native pollinators. There are over 4,000 native bees in the U.S., ranging from large bumble bees, efficient and often ground-nesting insects, to tiny, yet common metallic sweat bees. Most of them are specialists as well and can only gather nectar and pollen from particular native flowers to feed their larvae.
On the other hand, non-native plants are plants that grow naturally in similar soil, light, and moisture conditions, but are from a different region of the world. As a result, they do not offer the same ecological services to our native insects.
How to go about integrating native plants?
- First, know your yard conditions so you can choose the right native plants:
- How many hours of sun or shade does the location receive?
- How dry or wet is this spot?
- How big is the area to accommodate the mature plant?
- Add a group of 3-5 plants per species into an existing planting area or start a new planting area with several different plants that will flower in succession to offer food and habitat throughout the entire growing season.
- Consider adding a new planting bed under an existing tree. There are numerous native groundcovers that will thrive in the shade of a tree, whereas the lawn may have been struggling to compete with the tree roots for water and nutrients. These native groundcovers like all native plants will require no irrigation or fertilization once they have become established.
But must you go all native?
A study of Carolina chickadees found that the bird only nested in residential neighborhoods with at least 70% native plants to support enough caterpillars to raise their young successfully. A good rule of thumb is to have ¾ of the plants in your yard be native ones. Then, enjoy some non-natives like hosta, roses, and lavender, but please be aware of invasive plants such as wisteria, burning bush, or barberry. These and many other non-native plants have escaped from yards and established themselves in natural habitats where they often overcome native plants and create food deserts for native wildlife.
Are you ready to get started?
The Westfield Green Team and Friends of Brightwood Park are co-sponsoring the Native Plant Sale by the Great Swamp Watershed Association (greatswamp.org/native-plant-sale/plant-catalog). It features 28 species suitable for a variety of growing conditions. The sale is currently underway and ends on April 22nd. Quantities are limited and last year’s stock sold out, so don’t hesitate to place an order and start actively supporting the local ecosystem. Or, for inspiration, check out the native plant demonstration gardens at Brightwood Park, which are currently under development with plantings beginning in May.