Most suburban landscaping is based on a very few species of plants that evolved in many different parts of the world: weeping cherry trees, Japanese barberry shrubs, boxwood, cherry laurel, leatherleaf viburnums, cultivars of euonymus, hostas, daylilies, yew. Those are the plants that garden centers sell and that landscapers supply. People buy them because they are green and available and, in most cases, tough and long-lived. As a result, most backyards and shopping malls and public spaces throughout the country look alike and are lacking in many of the ecological services that plants should supply.
Ecological services include slowing down the movement of stormwater to prevent flooding, cooling and cleaning the air and water, and feeding wildlife. A landscape composed primarily of lawn and a few nonnative shrubs and trees provides few of these services; in contrast, a landscape composed primarily of native trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses supplies them all in abundance. On a very basic level, if you want to see birds and butterflies, you need native plants. Butterflies rely on specific host plants to complete their life cycle, host plants that will be native to the region where the butterflies evolved. The other side of the coin is that birds need caterpillars to feed their young, and native trees and other plants are hosts for the caterpillars of thousands of butterfly and moth species.
That specific benefit–attracting birds and butterflies–is fairly easy to see. It’s harder to see the wider ecological benefits, but they are nonetheless there: More lawns and hardscape mean more flooding after severe storms. More pesticides and herbicides mean polluted water. More lawn fertilizer means ponds and lakes overgrown with slimy, icky algae.
Improving our ecosystem is just one of the reasons to plant native plants. There are many others: Native plants are easy to care for, since they are well adapted to our climate and soil. This means that they require less water and fewer chemical inputs of all kinds than the exotic plants that most people plant. This in turn saves you time and money and benefits the environment. Native plants are beautiful, as I hope the pictures on this blog show you!
When you plant natives, you help restore our local environment by supplying the foods our native butterflies and birds depend on. Finally, you help restore a sense of place: northeastern North America, the place where we live, is a different ecosystem from Europe or Asia (the sources of most common garden plants). It has its own unique combinations of climate, soil, plant and animal life. Planting natives is one way to celebrate our uniqueness.