I attended a wonderful talk at the Straub Environmental Center is Salem, Oregon last night. The speaker Gail Gredler an instructor at our local community college spoke about creating native plant gardens. She answered a lot of questions I had about what is a native plant and why are they important to humans and to the planet.
What is a native plant?
First, according to Gail a native plant can be described as plants growing before European settlements started about 200 years ago. Other sources I found also describe them this way: “A native (indigenous) species is one that occurs in a particular region, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions” (Kartesz and Morse 1997; Richards 1998
Gredler explained that trying to say what is native and what is not is getting harder because some plant specialists are cloning and messing with the DNA of native plants to create “nativars”. These mad scientists (my judgment) are creating these bio-modified cloned plants so they can patent the plant and make money on each sale of the plant or its seeds. Bio-modification is not made with ecosystem health in mind so we don’t know if there will be detrimental effects. People are beginning to sell the look-alikes as natives and so it is important to find a native plant nursery that is registered. (See resource list at end of this article). Insects may or may not recognize the plant chemicals of these “nativars”. Some research on bio-modified corn and other grain crops are showing that insects will not pollinate the crops because the plant chemicals are toxic to the pollinator. The bio-modified grains are causing issues with human and animal health also.
Insects need native plants to survive. We need insects alive so that our food and medicine and utility plants can be pollinated and fertilized. Without insects and native plants our biome will experience an ecological collapse.
Ke Chung Kim an entomologist with Penn State University writes in his book “Biodiversity, conservation and inventory: why insects matter”, that insects and anthropods have existed for more than 400 million years and after surviving the Permian and Cretaceous mass extinctions, arthropods have been the most successful of all living things and along with other invertebrates constitute more than three-quarters essential for human food production, and maintaining rain forests, savannahs and other important components of global water storage in ecosystems.
Without insects we would experience complete eco-system collapse. Native plants are the only food that many pollinator insects will consume. Without native plants, many insects such as the Fender Blue butterfly, the Franklin’s Bumble Bee (Bombus franklini) and Mason bees (Osmia cascadica) will become extinct. Bringing native plants back into our environment is essential to the survival of humans, fauna and flora. Once the insects are gone, then will fall the birds, squirrels, foxes, rabbits, deer, and other fauna. The food chain will collapse.
According to Gredler 90% of insects depend on native plants for food. Local insects evolved with native plants and are attracted to particular leaf chemicals. The leaf chemical allows the insect such as the Fender Blue butterfly and pollinators to find food. Only 10% of insects are generalist feeders.
Here are 7 reasons on why native plants are important according to Gredler.
- Resource conservation: Native plants do not need a lot of extra water. They are drought resistant. Most native plants that would grow in Oregon and (Washington, British Columbia) valleys do not need extra water in the summer time. They need well adapted to our dry summers.
- Save on the use of fertilizers and pesticides: Native plants do not need pesticides. They are already acclimated to insect populations and can take care of themselves, thank you. Fertilizers are applied sparingly. Having plants grow in correct soil types is more helpful.
- Insects need them to survive. As already mentioned: 90% of insects depend on native plants for their survival. 37% of animal species eat herbivorous insects.
- Native plants in landscapes will stop the desertification of Cascadia.
- Habitat fragmentation is a hazard to wildlife. Bringing natives back will stop the ecosystem collapse. Native plants provide food, water, and habitat for wildlife.
- Plants are the only thing on the planet that can harvest the sun’s energy and create their own food.
- Native plants are not necessarily aggressive and can be out done by non-natives. They will need our help to come back. We need to stop planting aggressive non-natives like the Butterfly plant.
Here are few more from other sources:
8. Native plants are important to human health. The vast array of natural chemicals is already the basis for ~25% of all U.S. prescriptions, ranging from aspirin (bark of willow tree) to taxol (bark of pacific yew tree). These plant based medications easily break down in our ecosystems unlike pharmaceutical synthetic hormones and drugs. Use native plants for healing and stop the chemical soup poisoning of our world.
9. Native plant heritage: plants were used for almost everything that humans needed to survive. Think what the world would be like if we stopped producing toxic plastic “stuff” and went back to living simply with few things, essentials made from plants: clothes, homes (not from trees but from fast growing plant fiber and earth such as in Cob buildings). Paper not made from our forests but from fast growing plant fibers. Humans lived with this technology for hundreds of thousands of years. We may have to adjust to new ways of living to survive.
10. Native plants can be used to restore our land. They easily adapt to harsh conditions and have been used in the repair of streams, meadows, savannahs, forests, and other fragile landscapes.
According to Gredler since the 1840’s over 80 million acres have been taken out of native landscapes. Landscapes have been paved over, planted in non native turf grass and tilled for non native crops. Gredler called this process the “desertification of Oregon”. I call this process the desertification of Cascadia because this destruction of the bio-region is happening everywhere.
According to my other source Kartz and Morse, although only about 737 native plant species are protected by the Endangered Species Act, it is estimated that nearly 25 percent of the 20,000 native plant species in North America are at risk of extinction. It is becoming generally recognized that in order to preserve individual species, their plant communities must be preserved. This includes the preservation of native plants that are not yet in danger of extinction, but still play an important role in native ecosystems.
Native plant species provide the keystone elements for ecosystem restoration. Native plants help to increase the local population of native plant species, providing numerous benefits. There are specific associations of mycorrhizae with plants, invertebrates with woody debris, pollinators with flowers, and birds with structural habitat that can only be rebuilt by planting native plants.
We need your help. Begin today to tear out the turf and aggressive non-natives and plant your yards to become a native plant repository and sanctuary.
Where to find a list of reputable native plant nurseries in cascadia
1. Online PDF booklet of native plant nurseries in Oregon and Washington
2. Sources of Pacific Northwest native plants – a online Pdf booklet
3. The plight of the Fenders Blue Butterfly and its relationship to Kincaid’s Lupine
If you would like to learn more about the relationship between insects and humans, animals and plants, check out the Xerces Society website at: http://www.xerces.org
Kartesz, John, North Carolina Botanical Garden, and Larry Morse, The Nature Conservancy. 1997. Personal communication
Kim, Ke Chung (1994) Biodiversity and Conservation, Volume 2, Number 3, 191-214, DOI: 10.1007/BF00056668, Center for Biodiversity Research, The Pennsylvania State University. http://www.springerlink.com/content/q465056vr1t45u67/