Questions Native Plant Enthusiasts Should Consider

FieldMilkweed

One of the questions native enthusiasts are asking of everyone, “Will you plant milkweed”?

NaturePreserveNature left to it own devices without constant intervention.

If returning areas to native flora and fauna, what things should one consider? We looked at this a bit in Whose Got the Blues?  Native or Non-Native.

First, what is a native plant?

As defined by the USDA, “Native species” means, with respect to a particular ecosystem, a species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred or currently occurs in that ecosystem.

GoldenField

Questions to Consider

  • Is it even possible in a nature that is all about change to have an exclusively native plant habitat?
  • What is considered introduction and as to when?
  • Can plants grown hundreds of years ago find conditions suitable with the seemingly changing effects of climate change?  Can we restore native plants where they are no longer adapted?
  • Do birds and insects adapt when confronted with hardship or do they seek out more favorable conditions?
  • Are humans more the problem than any other factor of change, even by precipitating change?
  • Should non-native plants be studied for benefit to a habitat BEFORE removal? Most restoration projects seemingly focus entirely on the native plant with less concern to the animals that inhabitant the area of study. Plant and they will come. Plant and some will leave. Seems simplistic.
  • Why is it that natural, restored habitats touted to be sustainable often seem to have to be perpetually managed? If historical prairies were man-made initially, how is it even possible to restore those “original” habitats?
  • Why is it that working habitats need to be completely destroyed to make more room for native plants?
  • Is it worth the money sunk into many of these projects that do not produce empirical results?
  • Is it refutable at all that insects prefer native plants?

Each question would make an interesting post. The funny thing about wildlife, they seem to make do. But the question always is how do we want to see wildlife? Like this?

CormorantsElectricalTower

Or this image below? Some things will always be beyond what humans are willing to do to make places native habitat. The tower above happens to be in a nature preserve. We see this on many occasions.

Warbler

Is habitat all about native plants? For instance, many gardens don’t have the native soils of woodlands and their exposure may not favor many of the woodland natives found today. Is it not more prudent assessing species based on what they do rather than from where they come?

WildCarrot

I know myself I think of quite a few non-native plants as natives. I have seen them in meadows since I was a kid. Queen Anne’s Lace, White Clover and Dandelion are considered naturalized. What a nice welcoming term. If it hinders land management practices, does it become invasive instead? Seems so.

Dandelion

I think what all this study is really missing is that there is too many uncertain factors playing in on the results to either side’s findings, climate change being one, and humans themselves being the other. There are just too many of us with too many detrimental actions, the majority of whom just do not care. We will always put ourselves first.

GoldenrodMeadow

Animals and plants that are native can become excessive in a habitat too. They are termed “aggressive”. This also alters the ability of other native creatures to live and grow. It can be overlooked by those restoring a habit, returning it to “like it was meant to be”, especially when unwilling to return all species that once kept a habitat in check. What determines what it “is meant to be,” is nature.

YoungBuckSee if you can see above the “detrimental, yet native” plant and animal?

It seems that some native studies only happen with the objective to prove some plant objectionable, they just keep looking until something negative is found. It seems more prudent not to remove plants providing insects and birds food and shelter, no matter whether native or non-native. There will always be organisms that lose if a habitat is taken back to some arbitrary time in history.

I enjoy having a garden filled with wildlife and make no apologies for having named cultivars of many native species. I make no apologies for having non-natives either. If the insects and birds use them, that is all that matters, at least to me that is. There will always be those with a different view.

I make a point to watch, listen and learn in my garden.

What if every landowner had a portion of their property like shown below? That would be great for wildlife, but it is just not feasible for most.

Aster-Muhly-grass

Having a garden of any size is a luxury in many parts of the world. Having preserved land as parks and forests are not found everywhere. In some places, the forest might be cut to heat a home, a field plowed to grow food, and the wildlife might be sacrificed to feed the family. It is all relative to circumstance, culture, and location, and coincidentally, how it was hundreds of years ago. Can we go back ourselves?

No doubt restoring native landscapes is a difficult path to travel. I can support restoration efforts, they just need to carefully consider more than the one plant they seek to remove.

There were studies saying honeybees would effectively replace native bees. History did not support that. Now there are studies on native bees replacing lost honeybees. And speaking of bees…

Bumblebee
Yes, this is knapweed, invasive or honeybee plant?

Honey Bee Farmers Raise Concern Over Invasive Plant Control

Spotted knapweed control efforts worry beekeepers

KnapweesAfternoon

Should it be eliminated? Depends on who you ask and what organism they want to protect.

CabbageWhite

Appears that it is not only bees that like it either.

Moth

Knapweed is a problem so what gets done? Well they bring in an insect and populations are under control.

Knapweed is not the only invasive plant to tempt beekeepers. Beekeepers at one time were even encouraged to plant purple loosestrife to provide honeybees with flowers to visit late in the season. It also opened up wetlands to foraging since most wet meadows are considered unproductive for foraging bees. But is it ripe for removal when a plant clogs wetland waterways and displaces native plants and animals? Such a tricky dilemma when one sees bees utilizing a plant late in the season.

Bottom line…Here’s a novel idea, let’s just not asphalt over any more natural habitats, that itself might make a big difference. Think bigger in that more habitats need to be created not always destroyed. It is not JUST the plants in them, they need to be there in the first place. Maybe we just make better decisions as we move forward.

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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42 Responses to Questions Native Plant Enthusiasts Should Consider

    • Yes, a good article. We need to stop labeling things in nature I think (I don’t mean in “categorizing” like you do in your profession). What is non-native one place is native somewhere else, where it breaks down simply to non-native equals bad, native denotes good. Like you noted, the Australian plant is a savior in times of dry. We just have to stop determining that a certain plant is bad, because it will surely have a benefit to some organism. Kudzu is the plant in the US that runs amok and there seems to be little to control it. And how did it get here?

      • Yes, it is more an issue of good plant/bad plant sometimes! There is even an endangered bird species (southwestern willow flycatcher) dependent on the invasive tamarisk. Invaders have the advantage that they can sometimes persist where natives cannot! They can provide supplemental or replacement habitat. Kudzu was accidentally introduced, I think.

  1. Fabulous, thought-provoking post! Lots of excellent questions! The black swallowtail butterfly is one insect that has adapted. It uses fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace as host plants, non of which are native. When you look at what we have created it is truly amazing how the animals and insects have adapted to our invasion. But can they continue to do so at such a rapid pace as our environment changes faster and faster?

    • The last question you noted is the absolute ultimate question. Will it be too fast a change? With what I have been reading, it seems it might. It seems to be that two issues (each with many sub-reasons built in), us and climate change are “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. We gobble up land for development at unprecedented amounts at the very same time the world is drying in places and getting washed out in others. Man has helped that along in so many ways too, not just our use of fossil fuel. Looking at just these two factors makes it apparent, we are at a critical point. Those that don’t care to recognize will not even notice the changes around them, and that is the majority of people. We can only make small improvements. There will be those that say many small improvements make a large effect, but going against a nature in flux, I can’t see it much mattering in the long term. Many are optimistic, but certainly not the ones that matter. We have a world of uncaring individuals. There, my soapbox, not like it matters anyway.

  2. Denise says:

    I agree with your bottom line. But I would like it if you wrote a post about each of the questions. It is an interesting subject. Beautiful photographs, also the one with all the birds on the metal tower. I prefer birds in trees to birds in metal towers (I don’t know the proper word). But a metal tower with birds is always nicer than a metal tower without birds.

    • I had to laugh. You are right. I would not have taken the photo if a flock of Cormorants were not on this huge structure. But the electrical tower mars the preserve. They are having issues now with Eco-friendly wind turbines and birds flying into them and getting killed, our Bald Eagle is one of the birds that drew attention to this. Funny it took the bird of our nation to bring this to light. Many smaller birds have died too. They install these wind mills many times on flyways. It seems everything we do to confront issues of fossil fuel use seems to backfire in some way. Now studies are looking to relocate the towers to places where the birds are not migrating. But the reason they are there is the wind currents. Both the structure and birds need it.

  3. Patty says:

    At my Master Gardener meeting last night we had a speaker from a lavender farm in the area. He also keeps honeybees. Around the edges of his property he grows wildflowers, native and non-native, that bloom in the fall to help feed the bees after the lavender is finished at the end of summer. His farm is buzzing all the time.
    I can hear the frustration in what you say. Development worldwide does not care for our wildlife whether it is big beasts or little ones. Creating wildlife corridors may be an answer although I fear that is too late already as it takes enormous effort on government. As gardeners we, intentionally or not, are creating wildlife corridors even though they are not ideal and can not appeal to all. The world can never have too many gardeners!

    • i so agree. The world needs more gardeners. I think of that in my job as I create gardens, but it is ultimately the homeowners that maintain them (or their gardeners). I cannot think of even one of hundreds that gardens pesticide free. So being a gardener is not always a positive thing.

      I worked on wildlife corridor creating in Costa Rica. It was an amazing project. Wildlife bridges were built over roads to keep the wildlife from being roadkill. I was not there long enough to see if the bridges were used. I would believe the arboreal animals would use them like monkeys, but I always had my doubts on animals that had established ground trails they follow everyday. We were working with biologists and also landscape architects. I was there as an architect for building. Animals don’t go where we expect them too. The corridor was laid out in likely paths of travel. Nature reserves are in Africa and the US, but how many times do you read of an elephant wandering off and being killed. The same with our wolves. They are a prime target leaving the preserve. There is nothing to do about this either. Plant corridors make sense for insects, but again it matters on maintenance. It also matters on migratory patterns and if you read the comment above, I noted how our best intentions can have dire consequence.

  4. Phrases like “restoring land to how it was meant to be” are sentimental and not very useful. Yes, humans are just one species in this intricate ecosystem. But humans, like the members of any other species, are going to use the environment to their best advantage. Other creatures might overforage and eat plants in a small area until there is nothing left. Unlike other creatures, though, we can see the wide ranging and long-term consequences of what we do. We need to strike a balance to maintain the environment for ourselves and for future generations.

  5. Yes, humans are just one species in this intricate ecosystem. But humans, like the members of any other species, are going to use the environment to their best advantage. Other creatures might overforage and eat plants in a small area until there is nothing left. Unlike other creatures, though, we can see the wide ranging and long-term consequences of what we do. We need to strike a balance to maintain the environment for ourselves and for future generations.

    • We are one, but also the most pervasive ( well technically that is wrong, insects are more numerous than us, but you know what I mean). I agree all species use what is available to them, but most of nature has checks and balances to keep species from overpopulating any one area if not interfered. Like the deer image I showed, if wolves were here, there would not be so many deer. We would have less pet cats and dogs though since habit is cramped and wolves would not stay in small patches of nature. Since we like our cats and dogs and our kids too, wolves are not allowed. Nature is just too complex. The talk of having a balance and being part of the web… well that seems, well, not even a option anymore. Do you really think us as a whole are preparing for future generations? I think sometime in the future those generations will not have much to say complimentary to our actions on nature. We look at previous generations for the harm they caused. They probably did the same. It is human nature to create, to push science, to build, to grow and expand. It is human nature to solves problems too. I hope I am around long enough to see the way climate change is dealt with. Maybe nature will just deal with us. A really simple and quick solution. Who knows?

  6. milliontrees says:

    This is an excellent synthesis of all the questions that should be asked and answered about the crusade against non-native plants and the fruitless effort to eradicate them.

    It took me years of research to identify all of those issues. You are a quick study. Surely the time you spend in nature has accelerated your learning curve. If you walk in nature with your eyes open and with an open mind, you can’t help but notice that non-native plants and trees are performing many valuable functions for humans as well as for animals.

    Thank you for bringing these issues to the attention of your gardener colleagues.

    • Oh, I have been harping for a long time because I have been involved with professional projects on wetlands and even a summer in Costs Rica on creating wildlife corridors in Monteverde. Building has a lot of responsibility associated with it beyond the property the building or structure occupies. When I was in school, this was what stuck with me the most. What we do affects much around us, and how do we do it with less environmental impact? I don’t talk about my real profession much on this blog since the blog is about nature, photography and gardening, but I have on occasion. It is usually prompted by a post I read where some home gardener goes off on a rant about some issue and takes such a one-sided or ethereal view. Then I might cite projects I worked on to show I am not just a home gardener, just to give a little credibility to my argument.

      My favorite is always when creating urban meadows. I have seen books on this and the plants they use are many times non-native plants. They show bulbs from abroad and call it a meadow. I have talked with a horticulturalist and a entomologist to get their views. I have talked with naturalists. It humors me to think that a 15 foot by 15 foot space can be called a meadow. I have designed large meadows for commercial projects and spoke of that. It is NOT the same by a long shot as an urban front yard. I myself have my city yard almost completely planted with many species cultivars, but I never call it a meadow. I have stirred the pot many times.
      https://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2012/08/22/urban-meadows-what-a-biologist-thinks/
      https://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2011/08/27/the-native-melting-pot-of-plants-what-goes/

      Like you, I see the hypocrisy, I see the unreasonable. It is not the plants, it is how we use them. And it is much more than the plants themselves. It is a world more…

  7. alesiablogs says:

    I love your writing along with your photos! It is your passion that always brings me back to reading your posts. I actually mentioned you recently in one of my posts. : ) http://alesiablogs.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/and-the-oscar-goes-to/

  8. CC says:

    Totally agree with put a hold on asphalt/concrete. in little rock the downtown has been reviving and many developers are trying and have succeeded in building, developing next to the ar . nothing wrong with some natural nature!

    • That has always been an issue for me in a building profession. Finding ways to minimize what is necessary by codes and ordinances. Parking is a necessary evil. Permeable is a better choice, but also more expensive to install. Large properties we do minimize lawns where we can too. The building have many Eco-friendly considerations as well, some by code others by long term cost savings. Always about money…..

  9. Eulalia says:

    Lovely conclusion 🙂

  10. Phil Lanoue says:

    Excellent info with terrific photos!

  11. Oh, I hope we do “make better decisions as we move forward”.
    Beautiful post, as always accompanied by your wonderful shots! 🙂

  12. OK, here are my answers.
    1. I’m not trying to have an exclusively native garden, so I wouldn’t know. I grow lots of exotics, but I guess you could still call me a native plant enthusiast. My guess is most such enthusiasts are more like me than not.
    2.I would say plants introduced with or after the arrival of Europeans.
    3. Not sure what you mean by “plants grown hundreds of years ago”. The natives I grow have grown continuously in this or a nearby region.
    4. I’m not an expert, but it’s fair to say that some birds adapt if they are capable of doing so, others will move to other areas if they can, and others will go into decline or extinction. I think that pretty well describes what has happened. There has been a decline in species diversity with the most adaptable species becoming the most numerous.
    5. What problem do you mean? Certainly, humans cause environmental degradation. But I think it makes no sense to say (if I understand you) that because human activity caused the degradation, there should be no human activity to mitigate it. Using that reasoning there is absolutely no hope at all of mitigating climate change or any other environmental problem.
    6. I would say both non-native and native species should be studied for their impact on the environment before action is taken regarding that plant.
    7. For reasons you explain so well, it isn’t possible to maintain any woods, prairie, wetland, etc. without substantial maintenance. Some processes, like prairie fires, can no longer occur without human management. And invasive plants will pop up over and over. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth managing some acreage to preserve this type of environment. And the amount of such acreage, sadly, is pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things.
    8. Not sure what you mean by “working habitats”. I would support removal of plants such as buckthorn or kudzu that tend to create monocultures or otherwise severely reduce diversity. I’ve seen this happen near my home and the results have been very positive – more plant species, more animal life.
    9. I guess it depends on the project. I was under the impression that there have been some studies that can be used as a guide for the likelihood of a positive impact.
    10. I followed your link and it sounds like there are conflicting results. I’d have to read more to have a better sense of the relative validity of the work referenced in your link and the research done by Douglas Talamy.

    As always, thanks for an extremely thoughtful post with fantastic photos!!!

    • Wow, I guess I was not expecting anyone would address each question because there really is little answer to each that does not require documentation for the most part. Some have no real answer either. It was more an invitation for bloggers to adopt a question and research both sides to come to some consensus, rather than taking sides to this delicate issue.

      It is like Laura did in the very first comment. She has practical experience and can, from a scientific viewpoint, show examples of things addressed in this post. Death of a Million Trees has tons of research compiled on their site, they have a perfect example of question 8 and I believe 9 too. I think question 5 is the answer itself – people are both the cause and the solution. I saw a study on plants long gone from a habitat that researchers were trying to reintroduce without luck. I have to try and find it again. That would be a reference for question 3, but I bet others could supply more examples than the one I found. This also goes hand in hand with question 9, money spent on a failed initiative.

      I am very middle of the road on my thoughts and actions on the native/non-native issue because I think the problems in habitats are much larger than the plants. They are affected by too many external forces there is no way to measure or control. I find many quoting Tallamy’s book for instance, like no other authority exists, yet many do. He is probably the most quoted author on planting native plants that I have read. I don’t have any issue other than some insects will feed on non-native plants, so there is nothing wrong with planting some.

      Like Karin, I grow fennel for the butterflies and I learned today that invasive Tamarisk benefits a flycatcher. That is my point, there is always much to learn and it takes learning from many different sources, often from both sides of the discussion. We as informed gardeners, do our best generally, but I bet in your neighborhood, you might be the only one not using pesticides. I believe I am in my neighborhood. I am also the only one to my knowledge using some native plants, well again, not the weedy versions of the plants.

      Like I said in other posts, the home gardener is too entrenched in the Scotts line of garden products (and Monsanto products like Roundup) because of quick results, and will NEVER change as long as these products are manufactured. It is not a battle that can be won. I have had hundreds and hundreds of clients through the years, and know of none that do not have lawn services or do not use pesticides and herbicides. Even properties that have native plants installed still spray. People see insects and out comes the sprays. A caterpillar chewing is a goner in most home gardens. Do they have to spray? No, but it is a quick convenience and having a tidy garden better than the neighbors.

      I commend you for putting forth answers to the questions. Maybe you should a do posts addressing the issues.

      • Maybe I will during the long, cold winter! I appreciate your response. By the way, have you ever read the novel “When the Killing is Done” by TC Boyle? It addresses exactly these issues and is basically sympathetic to both sides. If you are a fiction reader and haven’t already read this, I recommend it.

        • No I have not, but will look into it. I like reading articles and books that look at both sides. Things are too complex to have such narrow views. I finally got some time and just started to get back to reader’s blogs. Ironically, your blog was next. See you in a minute.

  13. janechese says:

    Ironic that the first plant is milkweed which is the one that monarch butterflies like and their paths are changing. Good questions posed here, one that we all need to deal with as climates and vegetation change. Also liked your comment about what we perceive to be a native plant because it has been there as long as we remember doesn’t make it true.I will try to keep my mind open and read various views.

    • I placed the milkweed first in the post because it signals such an important issue this year. The Monarchs are in serious trouble with reducing numbers and vanishing habitat. It is a subject that native enthusiasts of all levels from those that dabble to the zealots are talking about. But just planting milkweed in gardens is not the issue. What I have read is they need it in greater numbers where they found it before, in the farming field hedgerows for instance. But again it is much more that has been affecting them including the uncertain factor or weather and the uncontrollable loss of their wintering grounds. I keep reading that home gardens should be planting native plants and while I wholeheartedly agree, gardeners are not going to save the Monarch I believe with too many other negative obstacles facing the butterfly.

      The other point you brought up, yes, it is how I bet most people see these naturalized plants. Would we see meadows the same without Queen Anne’s Lace? I would miss it and so would the insects. Check out posts from Million Trees. They offer a very balanced view.

  14. janechese says:

    I think it was you that wrote about our killer cats. Since then I read how bird populations are dwindling by “tens of thousands” and the biggest reason other than man made habitats and poisons was cats!

    • Yes, I featured an article by Cornell Lab of Ornithology director, John Fitzpatrick. It is funny cats are being singled out lately since this report has been around for quite a while, but you are right, bird numbers are dwindling and studies are looking closer for the reasons. BTW, yesterday I saw another Monarch in my garden. It is really late for them to be here. Last year they were traveling through Pennsylvania at this time.

  15. Great post. Lots of good info and thought-provoking questions to consider. Blessings, Natalie

  16. Carolyn says:

    Ahh your questions are thought provoking, indeed. And I’m hoping many more posts will come from them. As for milkweed, I didn’t plant it in my gardens, but I certainly do nurture it so that it will thrive. Five monarch sightings this year up from zero the year before… and more than a dozen eggs left behind.

    • Thank you. I too hope others take on the task and find a way to be objective. There is a lot of emotion in this subject and often, that is all that drives some to write about it. It is like Connie said above, when others say a habitat is to be “planted as it was meant to be”, it is not helpful at all. That means nothing since no one can produce that state but nature herself.

      I saw a Monarch in the garden yesterday. I think it is late for his travels, but glad he was on his way South.

  17. dianaed2013 says:

    So informative and thoughts that need to be put forward to ‘restorers’. Great photography as well. Landscape photography always works if I feel that I would like to go there.

    • Thank you Diana. Living in Niagara Falls and a few minutes walk from the Falls, I can take lots of photos to make people visit. But like I think you might mean as a photographer, getting them to want to be in a place through imagination and the sense of place. I may never visit some of those iconic places around our country or the world, but have no problem imagining myself there with some of the images that photographers put out there for our enjoyment.

  18. A.M.B. says:

    I had no idea that dandelions aren’t native! This is a very interesting post, Donna. It’s given me a lot to think about.

  19. Your last point is so important Donna…let’s stop invading every wild place and leave some. I think it is one reason I started planting more natives. I was tired of all the grass and chemicals and lack of wildlife. Now with a mix of both native and non, I have more wildlife to enjoy. Feels better than just some grass and bushes.

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