Planting Native is a Matter of Life and Death

November 1, 2014, Department, by David G. Davis

Park professionals have a unique opportunity to benefit their local and global ecosystem now and for the future by planting native species in their parks.As dramatic as the headline of this article may sound, the statement is true for many species. To paraphrase Doug Tallamy from his book Bringing Nature Home, native insects have evolved to eat native vegetation and cannot survive on non-native plants. Since insects are food for a host of critters like birds, toads, salamanders, lizards, fish and foxes, they’re critical to the food web. Millions of Americans have a birdfeeder. Unfortunately, baby birds don’t eat seeds — they eat insects. Man’s activities have displaced native plants in favor of roads, farm land, lawns and landscape plants from other parts of the world. Although Tallamy’s observations seem basic enough, there really hasn’t been much information on the matter until his book debuted in 2009. The point is to use more native plants and spread the word about the importance of using native plants. So, now that the truth is out and we can do something about it — what next?  

The cure is simple: Plant more native plants. Some folks balk at the idea of planting native as images of unruly landscapes or the wildflower experiment that went wrong dance in their heads. Native plantings don’t have to look, for lack of a better word, wild. There’s an immense selection of native plants available — many are as well suited in a formal setting as a natural one. Anyone from a homeowner to the park superintendent can be successful with natives. Forget stereotypes, take stock and get started.

Begin by assessing the site. It’s not only important to know what native plants are already there but also what invasive plants are there. It’s critical to be aware of these alien invaders like kudzu, English ivy and porcelain vine because they gobble up woodlands, vacant lots, stream banks and other areas that would support native plants. So it’s very important to remove invasive plants to allow room for natives. Many landscape architects include invasive plants in their plans. Insist that these not be included. Most states have an invasive species list online. Removing all invasive plants may not be practical, but not continuing to plant them is a no-brainer.

For the park manager, landscape professional or guy down the street, the opportunities for using natives are limitless. There are native plants that do well in almost any situation. A favorite pro tip is to get outside and see which plants grow well in what areas. Observing nature is way to sharpen understanding of plant communities. Even a golf outing or fishing trip is an opportunity to observe plants. Public gardens, parks, schoolyards and university grounds are perfect venues for educating the public regarding the need for native gardening. Consider demonstration gardens or theme gardens. These are a great way to draw visitors. A quick and easy idea is to add a butterfly garden — or simply get an existing site certified as one. Butterfly gardens capture the imagination of children, will be loved by people of all ages, and are beautiful and good for the environment. Use water-loving ferns, sedges and perennials in wet areas. This might be a simple solution, but it is often overlooked in lieu of expensive drainage work. Likewise in dry areas, use natives suited for dry sites. Using faux or dry streambeds and bioswales is a really stylish way to handle stormwater, and it offers ideal growing conditions for many natives. 

Common native perennials like black-eyed susans and coneflowers do well across much of the U.S. These look great in mixed borders, mass plantings and wildflower meadows and are readily available. There is a plethora of wonderful native grasses like the drought-tolerant, sweetly fragrant prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, the beautiful purple muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capalaris, or one of the cultivars of switchgrass, Panicum species. Grasses, sedges and rushes look especially good when used near boulders or hardscape features and soften the landscape. They also introduce sound and movement as their foliage rustles in the wind. 

For butterflies, a genus to include is the milkweed or Asclepias genus (see "Can Parks Help Save the Monarch?" for more information). Plants in this genus are the only host plants for the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly. Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed, is a bright orange summer bloomer and probably the most well-known of the group. For moist areas, the attractive pink-blooming swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, works well. Just be careful about using common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Although native, it can be unruly in the garden and is better suited to the meadow. 

Another wonderful plant for moist to semi-moist areas is Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium. There are many smaller cultivars available now that fit nicely into the landscape. A diverse group of plants that grow across the country with many beautiful native species is the ferns. So when planting ferns consider a native one. With shrubs and trees there are a number of beautiful genus native to the U.S. like Rhododendron, Hydrangea, Cornus (dogwood), Cercis (redbud) and Amelanchier. In recent years, many exciting new cultivars of redbuds have been developed with leaf colors including green, chartreuse and maroon with forms in weeping, spreading and vase-shaped. “Pee Wee” and “Munchkin” are dwarf cultivars of the popular oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia. There are many more native plant choices available these days for the garden with limited space.

Our native fauna depend on native plants for their survival. We must plant more native plants and tell others about the importance of doing so. As with recycling, making a big difference takes a collaborative effort. Imagine if every park, school yard, church yard and home landscape planted more natives. Our landscapes would be full of life. With the wide variety of beautiful native plants available today, there’s no reason not to go native. So spread the word, get out there and plant a native garden today.

David G. Davis is the Associate Director of Landscaping Services at Wake Forest University.