The Importance of Native Plants in the Landscape
For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Max Nottke and I am a past chair of the conservation committee as well as owner of Bashavia Gardens, a native-plant-focused, ecological gardening firm based in the greater Winston-Salem area.
With the pressing issues of climate change and decreasing biodiversity bearing down on us, homeowners are increasingly interested in what they can do on their property to be a positive force for the environment. How can we naturally attract and support pollinators and birds, especially given the recent concerns regarding bird feeders? How can we reduce the maintenance and input – water, fertilizers, and pesticides – traditionally required in our home landscapes? The emphatic answer is by utilizing native plants.
The importance of native plants begins from the perspective of the insects, who not only play an essential role in the pollination and propagation of plants but also serve as the bedrock foundation of the food web and ecosystem as a whole. Local insects have co-evolved with specific native plants as host plants for their larvae. The poster example of this being the monarch butterfly, the caterpillar of which only feeds on species of Asclepias (milkweed). Without milkweeds in the landscape, monarchs would cease to exist. While non-native ornamentals can provide nectar for insects and nesting sites and food for birds, they rarely satisfy the crucial host plant niche that native plants do – certain species of oaks, for example, are known to play host to over 500 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
By planting plants that support and attract insects, we are also supporting and attracting those that feed on insects: birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Additional benefit for birds can be had by selecting shrubs and trees that provide not only nesting sites but food as well: Ilex verticillata (winterberry holly), Viburnum prunifolium (blackhaw viburnum), Prunus caroliniana (cherry laurel), and Lindera benzoin (spicebush), to name a few, all provide crucial nourishment while providing landscape appeal.
Further considering aesthetics, local plants provide a residential landscape the deep connection to the natural: the pink rage of redbuds in the early spring, the yellow sprays of goldenrod amid white puffs of little bluestem seed in fall, the textural persistence of christmas fern through the winter – all provide powerful reminiscences of our local, natural surroundings when utilized in the home landscape.
They are also resilient: having proliferated here for centuries without the help of humans, plants native to the Piedmont by and large have low maintenance requirements, often establishing and thriving with little fuss when sited well. When deciding what to plant and where, it is always important to consider the preexisting light and soil conditions; considering where a plant naturally occurs can provide valuable information as to what conditions it will thrive in. Itea virginica (Virginica sweetspire), for example, which naturally occurs in moist, low-lying woodlands and along stream banks, grows exuberantly in wet locations with full or filtered sun. As with any planting, mature size should always be considered. Never forget the well-worn adage of ‘right plant, right place’. The fall is an ideal time to plant as it provides a new transplant three seasons of establishment prior to the stress of its first summer.
Some additional resources on native plants can be found on Forsyth Audubon’s website (https://forsythaudubon.org/native-trees-shrubs-and-perennials/) and NC Audubon’s website (https://nc.audubon.org/conservation/bird-friendly-communities/bird-friendly-native-plants). Also highly recommended are the works of entomologist Doug Tallamy, specifically Bringing Nature Home and The Living Landscape, as well as Larry Mellichamp’s Native Plants of the Southeast. Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder (https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx) is a vital online resource for researching native plants’ natural habitats and cultural requirements.