The Case for Gardening With Native Plants
Suburban yards and gardens play a big part in our local ecosystem, and wise landscaping can help preserve our local environment’s vitality. Native plants are adapted to thrive here in southwestern Connecticut. They have evolved over time to be more resistant to plant diseases and provide the right type of food and shelter for local wildlife. Yet, there is much confusion over the term “native.” The most simplistic definition of a native plant is that it was present in the United States before the arrival of settlers. This definition, however, ignores the fact that it is a stretch to call a plant that has adapted to a California desert to also be a native of New Jersey. As Douglas Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the university of Delaware, puts it in his book Bringing Nature Home,
What is and is not a native plant is best defined by nature herself. Because plants do not grow in isolation from the other living things around them and are in fact essential to the lives of neighboring creatures, they interact with the residents of their habitats in countless ways. Over immense periods of time, these interactions help shape both the plants and the animals in a particular place. That is, the plants and animals in an area “coevolve,” each group continually influencing the evolution of the other. When a plant is transported to an area of the world that contains plants, animals, and diseases with which it has never before interacted, the co-evolutionary constraints that kept it in check at home are gone, as are the ecological links that made that plant a contributing member of its ecosystem. In an ecological and evolutionary sense, the alien plant’s new neighbors won’t know what to make of it and, in most cases, will exclude it from their biological interactions. . .This is why I argue that a plant can only function as a true “native” while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.
Thus, a Colorado blue spruce tree will grow just fine in Connecticut, but it will not function as a native to this area. Trees native to the Northeast, such as oaks and dogwoods, have evolved in partnership with the local wildlife to create a thriving inter-related community of flora and fauna. Animals and insects rely on native trees and plants to provide specific food and protection at crucial times in their life cycles. Without these native plant species, the whole ecosystem withers and the landscape lacks species diversity in both plants and animals and is characterized by adverse changes in soil conditions.
In contrast to native plant species, non-natives evolved in other areas of the world. Often these non-natives were brought to the U.S. for ornamental plantings (rhododendrons and boxwoods are a good example). Many non-native plants cannot support our local wildlife. In addition, over the years many non-natives escaped the bounds of their gardens and have out-competed and crowded out our valuable native plants. Reduced biodiversity and failing ecosystems are happening not only in the world at large, but also right here in our own backyards, and the spread of non-natives at the expense of natives is part of the problem. For these reasons, the Wilton Garden Club advocates planting natives whenever possible. Some wonderful native trees and shrubs to consider are:
- Amelanchier -- Shadblow
- Aesculus parviflora – Bottlebrush Buckeye
- Chionanthus virginicus – Fringe tree
- Cornus alternifolia – Pagoda dogwood
- Cornus florida -- Flowering dogwood
- Cercis canadensis -- Eastern redbud
- Ilex opaca – American holly
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