Why Native Plants Matter

If you care about flowers for the pollinators, supporting ecological biodiversity, clean water and air, healthy soil, low-maintenance landscaping, or climate change, native plants are you allies! This is a bit of background, a look at invasives, and some how-to's.

The Plot Thickens

Although I’ve become increasingly dedicated to native plants, both out of an admiration for wild ecosystems and because of a new appreciation for the subtle beauty of Appalachian plants, I didn’t realize until now how much more is actually at stake! When you become passionate about a topic, people tend to collect things for you like articles, which my father did last week. The June 27, 2022 Roanoke Times article, “We can all help sustain bees,” by Martin A. Davis, Jr., features–to my delight–the carpenter bee, bumble bee, and mason bee! In advocating for our native bees, Mr. Davis makes the case for native plants, because according to the National Park Service, non-native flowers “don’t provide as rich a mix of nutrients for bees as do native plant species.”[1] I think he meant to specify this for native bees, which makes perfect sense according to the principles of co-evolution, though I’d never considered it before! What this means is that the masses of carpenter bees I watched feasting on my friend’s lamb’s ears flower spikes and the bumble bees frequenting my hosta flowers aren’t actually getting a balanced diet. Comparing these non-native flowers to a junk food diet probably goes too far, but as you can see in this photo of bees clustered around an open soda can, they are not above such dalliances.

Photo by WhisperToMe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pioneering and Playing Catch-up

Mr. Davis’ article prompted me to dive deeper into the world of native plants and their critical importance to the ecosystems we depend on for clean water, flood protection, land stabilization, carbon sequestration, life systems resiliency, wildlife habitat, low maintenance landscapes, and adaptability to climate change. At each stage along this journey, whole new dizzying panoramas open up, and I feel like both a pioneer and like I’m desperately hurrying to play catch-up. What I mean is that, surrounded as I am by gardeners and organic farmers and eco-conscious people, this depth of understanding is just not widely held. Simultaneously, as I hack my way into this area of interest, I discover people who have been working in these fields for decades and hold a wealth of knowledge that is truly humbling. The Wild Plant Culture podcast has been a recent source of inspiration, but there are many others. The first episode of the Wild Plant Culture podcast, an interview with Leslie Sauer on Ecological Restoration is both a humble starter episode full of long awkward gaps and an inspiring dose of stories and information from a pioneer in the field.

In a very short period of time, I’ve gone from a native plant fancier to a native plant activist, filled with both ardent inspiration and frustration at how late I’ve come to the wider calling of ecological restoration, how few are my fiscal resources, how tiny my knowledge, how small my leverage. But let’s slow down and connect some dots because I’m sure that you, like I, might be missing some key steps in your understanding. If you’re reading this and still shrugging off the importance of native plants; if you’ve argued that plants have been migrating around for their whole evolutionary history and that so long as you avoid invasives (like here in Virginia, mimosa or multiflora rose or Bradford pear), you’re fine; if you’ve planted (and defend your choice) hostas in shade or daylilies in the semi-wild sun or daffodils for spring beauty or Japanese maples for gorgeous understory or specimen trees, then I have some information for you to consider. First of all, none of those garden favorites are native to North America, and second, I’m not going to tell you to kill them and rip them all out.

What Is A Native Plant?

The website Mr. Davis’ article, my entry point for this inquiry, points to for more information on native plants, plantnovanatives.org has a definition of native plants I like:

What Is A Native Plant? A plant is native to our environment if it evolved within the local food web and has the intricate relationships with animals and other plants that this implies. Evolution takes a really, really long time. Our local insects have not had time to evolve ways to overcome the chemical defenses of plants that have been introduced since the arrival of Europeans.

Plant NOVA Natives

This Is Not Nativism

I would like to pause to address a reaction I’ve gotten as I’ve begun to talk about native ecosystems with friends and acquaintances. Reactions have ranged from a defensiveness of non-invasive non-native plants based on the fluidity of species migration over the millennia (a true thing) to an almost phobic reaction based on the spectre of hatred invoked by anything containing the word “native.” Nativism, nationalism, and white supremacy have gotten a lot of airplay since Trump’s movement swept the political landscape, and some people are sensitive to anything that smacks of hate-based nativism. Aside from the fact that applying an extreme form of ecological nativism to humans would mean kicking everyone out of the Americas who isn’t Native American (which obviously isn’t possible), both of these attitudes completely miss the core issues by conflating ecological sensitivity with socio-cultural bigotry. They are not at all the same.

My beloved native shade bank by the Little River needs little to no maintenance and is home to scores of native plant species.

Native plant, animal, fungal, and bacterial communities represent long arcs of evolution during which species co-evolve with each other. Co-evolution means interconnection, lock-and-key, yin-and-yang, and a synergistic blending together in mutually specific and beneficial ways. Any native organism is present in a location because it is filling an ecological niche that it has carved out for itself over a very long period of time. It does this by way of rich, complex and diverse relationships with the other living creatures in its environment. These complexes are sometimes called food webs, and they tend toward dynamic equilibrium in self-regulating and self-sustaining ways. That is, they require very little input from humans once established (although there are beautiful ways to manage an ecosystem, including traditional Native American methods, that will increase the abundance and biodiversity of the wild). Biodiversity in these systems is important because it provides redundancies and backup systems for unusual weather events and other catastrophic disruptions. In other words, biodiversity promotes resilience. Native biodiverse systems are the gold standard in ecology because of their breathtaking complexity, resilience, and suitability to local conditions from soil composition to weather patterns to the vast microscopic life webs in the soil of which mycellial networks are but a part. Their members “play nicely” with each other and do not grow invasively within their native ranges. Among their members are also tight mutualistic relationships in which one species depends almost exclusively on another. Without one you don’t get the other. Not all pollinators can survive on milkweed!

An example of a fungus that didn’t play nicely when it was accidentally introduced is the Asian fungus that killed the American chestnut. That loss rippled throughout the Eastern forest, resulting in many species going extinct, as well as the collapse of important sectors of the Appalachian economy in an impact that is still being felt today. A friend of mine recently told me about the thousands of tons of chestnuts shipped out every year in boxcars from the Rock Castle Gorge community here in Floyd at the turn of the last century. So, as I speculated, the loss of the American chestnut cuts quite close to home for us here in Floyd. But we are also currently living through the mass die-off or virtual extinction of several native trees: the Eastern hemlock, the American elm, and the ash tree, all grievous losses caused by an accidentally introduced insect or fungus.

I believe that this is one of many tall American chestnut saplings growing in our high mountain valley in Nantahala, North Carolina. Might a blight-resistant strain have survived in our undisturbed cove? Or might some fungal check on the blight be present in the soil here? It supports the strategy recommended by Plant NOVA Natives to plant lots of threatened trees to give them a chance to evolve a resistant strain. We’re planning to send samples to the American Chestnut Foundation to confirm the identity of these trees.

A Time to Live and a Time to Die

Of course, even as I mourn, I understand that time brings an end to all things. Species come and species go and if they are not resilient to the times, they don’t survive. This is inevitable and accepting such endings is one dimension of maturity and wisdom. It’s just that we still have a lot of choice in the matter, and not giving up before the story is over is an important dimension of wisdom, vitality and life! And I would say that this is true not just of those endangered trees, but of biodiversity writ large, a healthy living planet, and us! Large-scale ecological restoration such as daylighting rivers and streams (restoring waterways that have been diverted underground), or re-establishing wetlands, is expensive and may be beyond most of us. But making the pivot to choosing native plants instead of non-natives whenever we do plant can be relatively easy. I had not thought it so important in suburban landscapes, but Plant NOVA Natives makes a fantastic argument for suburban native gardens:

Why Plant Natives in Your Suburban Garden?

from Plant NOVA Natives

“With natural landscapes rapidly succumbing to development and agriculture, it is more important than ever to use our properties to provide the plants that support the intricate relationships between plants and animals. Our own yards are where we can save the wildlife.

  • We obviously won’t save it in a concrete jungle.
  • Cropland is deforested and is coated with pesticides that kill both insects and native plants.
  • The native plants on rangeland are destroyed by the grazing animals.
  • Nature preserves only make up 1% of the landmass of the lower 48 – not enough to save the wildlife.
  • That leaves us – and own yards – where we can add native plants, remove invasives, and refrain from killing off life with insecticides.”

Other Advantages of Landscaping with Natives

  • Your native plants will thrive without fertilizer or much if any care once established (so long as you choose plants suited to your soil and light conditions). This is great for the lazy gardeners among us!
  • Your native plants will do a superior job of supporting the native pollinators so many gardeners these days seem to care about.
  • A well-designed native plant garden will provide four seasons of interest, as successional seasonal growth is a hallmark of native plant ecologies.
  • You can rest easy that you will not inadvertently contribute to an invasive species escaping into the wild, and you won’t have to contend with it in your own yard.
  • You leverage the power of the ordinary to change the world from your own back yard!
  • The intangible benefits are many, include a sense of well-being, integration with place, and many other more ineffable spiritual and psychic benefits.

The rule of thumb should be this: When planting, go native.

But What About Non-Invasive Non-Natives?

I don’t hate non-native plants, and I am not advocating ripping out and killing every non-native plant we can get our hands on! Even with the invasives, I’m trying to learn from them, and to find ways to manage the relationship without going on a warpath (though I have gotten into Vine Central with my clippers a few times since I shared our accidental ideal vine growing patch in my last post). The problem is I keep seeing people planting non-natives where fantastic native alternatives exist, are often cheap, readily available, and in many cases, nicer than the exotic variant! This is true from home gardens to the Floyd Flower Power initiative which is promoting pollinator flowers to civic projects like sidewalk trees. How many times has a city or town or local extension service enthusiastically introduced a beautiful plant, extolling its virtues and proposing widespread community adoption, only to discover decades later that the plant has become invasive? Bradford pear, multiflora wild rose, and ailanthus Tree of Heaven are all examples of civic introductions which have negatively impacted North American ecosystems. Tree of Heaven is the tree that grew in Brooklyn and was used extensively as a street tree in the 19th century.[2] According to Michael, an old neighbor of ours planted multiflora rose along his fence rows as part of a hedge row experiment initiated by Virginia Tech in the 1960’s. We all know how that story has gone. Multiflora rose now dominates the sunny margins across not just in our neighborhood but throughout many parts of the country and is considered one of the worst invasive species in the United States. Virginia Tech was not the only agent in that failed experiment. To be fair, it was first imported as root stock for cultivated roses.

The highly invasive non-native Ailanthus “Tree of Heaven” is often confused with our native staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), a tree widely used by indigenous peoples for food and medicine. The most obvious difference is the flowers, which in ailanthus begin as somewhat loose flower bunches or panicles light yellowish green to reddish in color, followed by clusters of red winged seeds similar to maple seeds, shown here. Staghorn sumac’s flower and fruit clusters, by contrast, are much denser upright cones culminating in its iconic deep brick red fuzzy fruit clusters. The fruit and branches are covered with a fine velvet from which it gets its common name.
Staghorn sumac on our roadside.

Wisdom from the Field

Longtime workers in the field of ecological restoration tell stories about time and time again being charmed by some exotic species, only to eventually watch it move from a polite non-native to a full-on invasive species. Japanese stiltgrass is one example, which I myself have enjoyed watching spill across the shady forest floor. Apparently these and other plants from Asia can change the soil microbiota (the bacteria and the mycellial networks in the soil), suppressing natives and favoring other Asian species, so that their invasiveness gains momentum over time. In other words, colonies of relatives from the Old Country spread and take over, crowding out the natives. Hmm. Those human cultural echoes do reach in, don’t they? That insight about the soil microbiota, by the way, was gleaned from a number of episodes on the Wild Plant Culture podcast. According to the USDA, “stiltgrass is considered one of the most damaging invasive plant species in the United States,”[3] although I just found a very thoughtful defense of it that observes that it behaves as an invasive only in very degraded post-agricultural soils where the native seedbank is virtually empty. Once the forest reasserts itself, and the native biome can reestablish that it almost disappears. can read “In defense of stiltgrass” on the Nomad Seed Project website.

Japanese stiltgrass on our bank, 2022.

A Naturalized Citizen

There are plants that prove over a long period of time to mind their manners and make good contributions such that ecologists come to call them naturalized. I don’t think stiltgrass will ever move into that category, but Plantago major, the broadleaf lawn plant I’ve always known simply as plantain, is one of these. I noticed only this year that it had arrived in our driveway and front lawn, and I was happy to see it. It feels like an old friend. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer, the native peoples mistrusted this humble plant when first it arrived on Turtle Island, following the white settlers everywhere they went, so that the people called it “white man’s footstep.” But over time, they came to appreciate its virtues: It is edible in spring, medicinal as a poultice for healing wounds and insect bites, easily growing alongside others and fitting into small places without ever dominating. I didn’t know all this when I took the photo of my feet standing on the path stones in my front yard, flanked by plantain (this was the featured image for my last post). It feels somehow true of the place I’ve come to stand in Appalachia, as a naturalized citizen of this place.

Plantago major, broadleaf plantain between my path stones, a naturalized plant to North America. I suppose that I am a naturalized citizen of Appalachia too! <3

When Planting, Go Native

It takes a long time to know for sure which way a non-native species will go, to naturalize or invade and poison the soil. So, the rule of thumb should be this: When planting, go native. It removes the important guesswork! Here in Appalachia, we are blessed with a huge diversity of options for every kind of location. But there will be native plants suitable to your location, you can be sure. You might have to hunt a bit to find nursery grown specimens for your particular project. But civic planning in particular has the resources to make the effort, and with projects like streetside plantings, many cheap and readily available native options exist. The cost of ripping out and remediating an invasive planting, as well as the widespread environmental costs more than offset any extra initial effort involved.

Episode 30: The native shade bank that inspired me

Native Planting Tips

  1. When planting, remove the guesswork and go native!
  2. Select plants suited to your soil, light, and moisture conditions.
  3. Space plantings according to their projected height and spread.
  4. Avoid soil ammendments and remove extra nursery potting matter, even when buying from a native plant nursery.
  5. Plant during spring or fall (or as recommended by your native plant nursery or other expert resource).
  6. Water well when planting, and during the first year (as recommended). After the first year, no added watering should be required if your native plant is suited to your location.
  7. Do not fertilize your native plants.

There are a few other principles to consider, but most of these are common sense ones: Plant species which grow well in your growing conditions (soil, light, moisture, land contour, other plants, structures, and so on). Take seriously the published information about its growth habits, mature size, and spacing recommendations. I see that the Floyd Village Green has planted two silver maple trees less than 10 feet apart and within 10 feet of sidewalks, despite the fact that this tree grows to a height of 50–80 feet, spreads to 35–50 feet wide at maturity, and tends to lift sidewalks with its roots as well as being prone to breakage, making it a poor choice for a dense public location. At least it is native, although Lord know I am still not good at identifying the many kinds of maples out there and I might be wrong! Whatever the species of maple, they’re too close together in the middle of a tiny greenspace between parking lots and sidewalks. The bigger they let the trees grow, the more expensive they’ll be to take down. Should I say something?

Probably the hardest mindset shift for us gardeners and landscapers is to really minimize soil ammendment and eliminate fertilizers. The whole point of native plants is that they don’t need much help from you except in finding the right spot for them. If your soil is highly degraded, and you can’t wait for the natural process of succession growth to recondition the soil, there can be an argument for soil ammendment, but that’s a more advanced topic. Still, planting your nursery plant with all its potting medium inside your dug hole can create an unhealthy barrier that blocks water from reaching the roots. You’re much better off removing most of the potting medium and planting directly into the soil, as Ian over at Wood Thrush Natives taught me. This is especially the case with poor-soil adapted species like milkweed and butterfly bush. Finally, plant only in spring or fall and water well during the first year until established (follow the recommendations of your native plant nursery when in doubt). After that, your native plant should need no further watering maintenance or fertilizers. Yay, it’s the big win for minimal maintenance!

A Native Plant You Didn’t Know You Could Love

I wanted to leave you with a native plant that you’ve probably never considered worth anything. If you’ve been walking in the woods, surely you have encountered it. If you live in a really dense suburban area, you may not have it in your yard, but you might every now and then–because its berries are eaten by birds and it can definitely grow up in untended areas. And it’s been catching my attention in the woods, and I kinda like it now. And I’m surprised at myself. So, without further ado:

Common greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia)

The common greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), the featured image for this post, is native to our woods and most of Eastern North America. Most folks consider it at minimum an annoyance, certainly not worth keeping around. But I’ve learned some things about it. First of all, it doesn’t sprawl and invade with the heedless intensity of Asian bittersweet vine which grows alongside it in similar conditions. Its fruits provide important late winter food for birds and animals (which Asian bittersweet does not), deer love the young shoots and leaves, and when it thickets, it provides habitat for small critters. I find it to be a polite climber and rather pretty, though I have been caught at the shins by its very tough and spiny brambles. It forces one to step mindfully in the woods, which might not be a bad thing. Interestingly, the Cherokee are said to have used Smilax rotundifolia, common greenbrier to treat leg pain as well as upset stomach,[4] and I’ve found wild foraging websites that recommend the young shoots and leaves as both edible and tasty. “Science has confirmed the fact that greenbrier contains anti-inflammatory, estrogenic (activate female hormones), cholesterol-lowering, and anti-stress compounds. Some of these compounds have been copied and are used in medicine today.”[5]


Product Spotlight

The Toothpaste Saga Continues…

I had to follow-up on the toothpaste issue from the last episode, and it’s more bad news, but it’s important! It turns out that there is another troubling ingredient in most toothpastes is this stuff called trisodium phosphate. My brother reminded me that this is the pink liquid in the bottle labeled “TSP” used for industrial cleaning applications, such as lead paint abatement or mold removal from exterior wood siding. That last application is how we remember it best: from the house he and I stained this spring when I first began watching the carpenter bees. But I remember writing historic light fixture specifications calling for the use of TSP in the cleaning phase. TSP! Worse, this chemical is apparently used as an ingredient in many packaged foods! The FDA has established safe ingestion levels, and food manufacturers must comply with dosage guidelines when adding it to food or products like toothpaste. However because so many products now contain it, one can easily get to overdose levels if you eat a lot of processed foods. Most importantly, it’s in Cheerios! And Lucky Charms, and all those cute-shaped cereals. Thinking of all the kids I watched grow up eating Cheerios as their favorite snack, all those back seats littered with Cheerios…gives me chills! Could that contribute to these weird childhood syndromes like ADD and the various learning disorders? Regardless, it can’t be good for us. Maybe it’s contributing to all these weird cancers?

Toothpaste Resources

Here is a link my brother shared with me that gives you a seriously rigorous lowdown on the ingredients and some product recommendations. Very thorough and thoughtful!

I’m using Burt’s Bees Charcoal + Whitening Zen Peppermint Fluoride-Free Toothpaste right now in conjunction with my Primal Life Tooth Powder, because I just couldn’t make it a month with my mouth not tasting good and feeling fresh after brushing! If you look at the above guide, you’ll see it contains some of the questionable ingredients (a foaming agent), but not the big three: fluoride, sodium lauryl sulfate, and trisodium phosphate. One nice thing about Burt’s Bees is they have recycling program where they will literally pay for the shipping of the used tubes back to them!! Read more here.

References

  1. Davis, Jr., M. A. (2022, June 27). We can all help sustain bees. The Roanoke Times, p. A7.
  2. Ailanthus altissima. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:43, July 10, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ailanthus_altissima&oldid=1096811806
  3. Smilax rotundifolia. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:51, July 10, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Smilax_rotundifolia&oldid=1062036491
  4. Taylor, C. (2022, July 12). “PLANT FOLKLORE: Greenbrier — Smilax rotundifolia.” The Sentinel Echo e-paper. https://www.sentinel-echo.com/news/local_news/plant-folklore-greenbrier-smilax-rotundifolia/article_fa78dffa-442b-57e8-b5a4-c45640339033.html

Japanese stiltgrass. USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/plants/japanese-stiltgrass

Pyrus calleryana. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:42, July 10, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pyrus_calleryana&oldid=1096846713

Rhus typhina. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:13, July 10, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rhus_typhina&oldid=1093944248

Rosa multiflora. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:43, July 10, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rosa_multiflora&oldid=1088183196

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