Why Native Plants Matter To Me

Endangered Florida Scrub Jay

“Native Plants” is not a dirty word, although it would be hard to tell that in some places where people want to endlessly argue about what is the definition of a “native” plant, why invasive plants are good for wildlife if birds eat their berries, and whether some invasive plants are actually good for the environment if humans get lots of benefits for them.

This is not the place for those arguments. While we continue to argue about trivial details, another species of butterfly may disappear due to habitat loss by human action.

Native plants are important to me because they provide essential links in the food chain. No native plants means no insects. And no insects means no frogs, toads, or salamanders, no birds, and no butterflies, to name just a few.

Instead of spending my time arguing, I prefer to spend my time and efforts creating welcoming habitats for wildlife. We have done a tremendous job of destroying wildlife habitat, putting many species of birds, butterflies, and large mammals at risk just because we think we need to have a Walmart on every corner.

Endangered Migratory Phenomenon

Our current make-up of plants in our managed landscapes (our homes, churches, schools, and businesses) consists of over 80% lawn, which provides very little habitat for wildlife, consumes enormous quantities of water, requires an unsustainable amount of fossil fuels to maintain, and often requires the application of tons of chemical fertilizers, which run off into our waterways every time it rains, killing fish, causing algae blooms, and wiping out fresh water ecosystems.

Of the 20% of plants in our managed landscapes after lawns, over 80% of that is exotic ornamental plants, which also contribute very little to the web of life that supports our native wildlife.

Native plants, which do contribute to supporting local food webs, make up less than 4% of the plants in the landscapes we design. We have simply left wildlife no place to go.

And changing that dynamic is the reason that locally indigenous plants matter so much to me.

Endangered Gopher Tortoise

We could start to reverse the fact of disappearing butterfly, bird, and native pollinator species simply by adding more native plants to our landscapes.

If we were to reduce our lawn area by just 10% every year, and replace that with a variety of locally indigenous plants, we would be giving something back to all the wildlife species from whom we have taken so much.

Giving back to wildlife is my mission in life, and I work to teach others to do the same.

Giving back means planting host plants for butterflies so they have some place to lay their eggs.

Giving back means planting your garden to support the many birds who may pass through in migration, as well as those that may hang around all year.

Giving back means creating a pollinator garden to help the many species of native bees and other pollinators whose numbers have been sharply diminished.

Giving back by adding more native plants means:

Native plants support unbreakable and vital connections between native plants and native wildlife especially insects and birds – just by adding a few native shrubs and trees you can support quite a bit of biodiversity and help maintain some of the strands of the food web (of which we are a part!). I always use pics of broken spider webs, birds eating caterpillars and predatorial insects and their victims to illustrate all this while I am explaining why we NEED biodiversity.

~Ellen Sousa, see Can Vegetable Gardens be Wildlife Friendly?

Giving back means:

It’s all about the relationships. Native plants have evolved relationships with other species and with the landscpes where they live that weave healthy communities, whether in our yards and parks or in wild landscapes. Introduced and exotic plants don’t have those healthy relationships and adaptations, and they often bring their own devastating pests and diseases with them from other continents (witness Dutch elm disease and the ash borer), and some introduced and exotic plants have the potential to “escape” from cultivation themselves and wreak havoc on healthy native ecosystems.

~Susan J Tweit, see Backyards as Arks for Wildlife

Giving back means:

Another way of saying “it is all about relationships” is ” it is all about ecosystems”. Every organism is native to some ecosystem and not to others. I don’t consider myself a “nativist” for these reasons. We need to be aware of the ecosystems and the coevolved relationships of their components. I always say that ecosystems are like very complex and beautiful symphonies. When we introduce a non-native it is like inserting a fragment from another equally beautiful symphony and creating a discordance. It is possible to patch it up but it takes time and it takes a very, very long time if there are as many introductions as the ones we have been causing lately.

~Beatriz Moisset, see The Science Behind our Passion for Native Plants

Giving back means:

A beautiful wildlife garden planted by you in your suburban yard, patio, balcony, or community park, will be a place that brings you joy AND lets you contribute to a sustainable planet. Even though in the United States we have used or modified for our own use, between 95 and 97% of the land, it IS possible for many, not all, but many, of the species of living things we have now to co-exist with us. (Tallamy)  We will have to be mindful. But the amount of land currently used by us for living in is significant enough in size to help preserve and conserve the native plants and animals we love. Using native plants in your landscapes, wherever they are, even if they are tiny, will help. The presence of native plants will give food and shelter to creatures who need it, and also help connect and make corridors between our natural areas, which are cut off from one another. ~Suzanne Dingwell, see The End of the World as We Know It

We have so many choices in creating a beautiful garden that is also a welcoming habitat for wildlife. It is amazing the beauty you will see when you choose to share your space with the wildlife around you, when you choose to give something back.

And that is exactly why native plants are so important to me.

How about you?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2012 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I’m always trying to up the diversity in my yard – first by increasing the diversity of my native plants to add more local but different ones, second my attracting new and different insects and birds as a result of increasing the diversity of plants. It all starts with plants.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Native Birds Like Native Plants

  2. DeAnna says

    Wow, that was powerful & uplifting. It reaffirmed to me, that the small butterfly garden I’ve created, amongst all these ornamental plants in the area, is doing a genuine service to the wildlife around me.
    I have a small yard in a mobile home park, & I’ve done something to ensure the survival of the butterfly & other pollinators. If I can do something significant in a small yard, then anyone can do something to give back to wildlife, no matter where they live, no matter how small their yard. We can all do something to make a difference, to give back to wildlife, & to slow the damage being done to the environment.

  3. says

    I think people argue against natives for many reasons: 1) a sense of culpability regarding ecological destruction that invariably comes up, which leads to feelings of 2) shame and guilt and 3) being chastised and repudiated. It’s unfortunate folks feel this way, but whenever we talk about HOME gardens, we invade a very personal realm. Home is our castle, suburban lots are what little of a rural manor we can have. Gardening, even for weekend gardeners, is about self expression. Whenever one advocates native plants a new landscaping dynamic, the above are some of the dynamic issues to deal with. It feels impossible. Plus we’re ingrained with a terrible landscape ideal pushed on us by big box stores, bad nurseries, fertilizer companies, and “pro” landscapers who know nothing. Native plant gardens are a protest for life!
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..The Nature of Cultivating Home in the Great Plains

    • says

      Benjamin, I totally agree with everything that you said. There’s no way we can convince people to add more native plants to their gardens by shaming them into it. I try to stay focused on the fact that you can attract way more birds, butterflies, and native bees when you continue to add more native plants into your landscape. If every time we had a bare spot to fill in our gardens we chose a native plant, we would be doing so much to help wildlife. And we would have the benefit of being able to watch this beauty in our “castle”
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Wildlife Garden By The Numbers


  1. […] a plant, as in the example of the crops grown by Native Americans. That which really matters is the long established and complex relationships present in ecosystems. A native plant is one that is ecologically linked to other components of the […]

  2. […] area was built in the exotic Bottlebrush (purchased and planted before I was introduced to the benefits of native plants).  Not sure of the successful numbers in that nest but there was a hungry baby always looking for […]

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