The plants native to any area have developed a relationship with the land and climate and with each other. Even before the first Native American settled into a new area, the plants were there. They adapted to the weather and adjusted to the cycle of rain and heat. They all had roles to play. Some were the first to sprout following a calamity. Others specialized to grow in only a certain type of rock or soil. These plants formed the base of the eco-system. They supported each other and the animals that were to follow. Because of all this, native plants can fill a role in the garden that other plants can’t.
Native plants attract and feed wildlife. Lots of plants in the nursery are listed as attracting birds or bees or butterflies. Usually it is the flowers and the nectar that attract them. A diet of sweets but for most creatures more is needed, at least at some point in their lives. And that brings us to insects. Over time, plants have evolved toxins in their leaves to repel insects from eating them. As the plants evolved their defenses, the insects evolved resistance to the toxins. But that resistance is often plant specific. Milkweed has a terrible taste and is repulsive to most insects. But the Monarch butterfly evolved so its caterpillar not only can handle the taste, but incorporated those toxins for its own self-defense. While the Monarch butterfly may visit many different flowers, its offsprings can only live on milkweed.
But who wants bugs in their yard!? Well, birds… Nectar may be nice, but insects are the main source of protein for many birds, and crucial for the growth of their young. The bushes and flowers brought over from the Old World, or even from a different region of our own continent are usually inedible to the native insects. Native plants can host a larger number of insects (few, in any, considered a pest to humans), and provide the food birds need to raise their young.
The insects on the native plants also attract predator insects. Those predators, in turn, consume the insects that feed in our vegetable garden. This can reduce our use of pesticides. I recall a time when tending to my tomato plants, I saw a large fat caterpillar tumbling to the ground as a wasp stung it, perhaps saving me a tomato or two.
Besides, many insects we identify as pests – houseflies, cockroaches – are urban bugs adapted to the human environment. Native plants will not increase their numbers.
Maybe though, we don’t need a reason to justify attracting bugs. Maybe we can slow down a little in our yards and admire not just the flowers, but the dynamic world happening in and around the plants. Beetles, leafhoppers, mantises, even the elusive Jerusalem cricket. They are part of nature, a part of the urban wilderness, a reminder there is more going on than the hustle of our daily life.
All photos by Alan Starbuck