Monday, April 11, 2011

Going Native!

The first gardening tip I learned as a budding naturalist (pun intended!!) was the importance of planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers! (Or, at least non-invasive ones). If you've ever taken a Biology course, you're familiar with the fact that each species that exists within a community has a niche ("purpose"). Some lifeforms have many niches. Beech trees, for instance are long-lived trees that can thrive for over 400 years. In addition to providing an enormous habitat for squirrels, hawks, and other animals- beech nuts are a valuable food source for many mammals (like deer and bear). As valuable as this tree is, a forest composed of 90 percent American Beech would be extremely vulnerable. (A community like this by the way, would be called a monoculture). If a blight, such as Beech Bark disease, decimated the Beech population, the food and cover sources for many of the community's mammals would be severely reduced. Another forest that consisted of Beech but that also hosted a variety of oaks and hickories would be stronger because these trees fill similar niches to the Beech, and could therefore better withstand the Beech Bark Disease. The second thing you know if you ever took Biology is that all the time different species are supporting each other, similar species are also competing with each other. And that's where invasive species come in. Invasive plant species live to crowd out any surrounding vegetation (like native plants!) so as to create a monoculture of themselves. In this way, they invade field, forest, and even edge communities like a disease. But, it's not so simple as native plants = good, and invasive plants = bad, even though this equation is almost always true. Native to invasive is more of a spectrum. The closer you are on the native end of the spectrum the better, but you can plant foreign species without dooming your yard and planet.

Here's what I mean!
  • A native plant is a plant that has existed in an area for hundreds of years, before outside settlement. In West Virginia, some beloved native garden plants are: Lilly of the Valley, Virginia Blue Bells, and Trillium.
  • Some wild plants are non-native, naturalized. This means that the plant did not originate in that ecosystem, but have existed there a long time and do not presented a serious threat to native flora. You may be surprised that Dandelions (from Europe) Indian Strawberry (from India) and Daffodils (Europe, again) make the list! If these grow in your yard, there is no environmental reason to eradicate them, but they do not truly reflect the original American landscape.
  • Some plants are non-native, non invasive. They aren't from here, they don't grow here in the wild. But we like to plant them and overall, that's OK! Where I live in West Virginia, I love to plant Zinnias (from Mexico) and Lantana (from the tropics). They are beneficial to birds and butterflies but because they are an annual in Zone 6, they don't survive the winter to spread profusely.
  • Then, you have the invasives. Invasive plants are like alien invaders. They come from another place far far away and the number 1 goal in their existence is to wipe out the life on your planet, - er, yard, for the purpose of totally annihilating the local population for the purposes of colonization. The thing is - sometimes they are sort of pretty. And even though the federal government spends thousands of $$ a year to eradicate these plants (like Paulownia Tree from China or Autumn Olive from Russia) they are not illegal to sell, purchase, or plant. ...So, take a look out your window...could one of your beloved shrubs be an alien invader?? BAH BAH BAAAH!!! I sure hope not.
The how to section of this blog is going to be easy. Before you plant, do your homework to find out where the plant falls on the spectrum. If it's invasive, or the catalog warns - "quickly spreading" you may think twice. Often, there's a native alternative that's just as pretty to the plant your looking at! You can also write to garden nurseries and tell them you prefer to order from catalogs that don't sell invasives.

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