Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Native Plant Guide for Helping Wildlife

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Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) may be too tall for most gardens, but the author allowed this volunteer to remain. It hosts Silvery Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars (seen here) along with many other kinds of insects. Photo: Marlene A. Condon

If you are interested in helping our wildlife by creating new gardens, or adding native plants to your current garden, the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District has a book that could help you decide which plants to grow.  Piedmont Native Plants, a spiral wire-bound guide loaded with color photos of native-plant recommendations, is available for just $10.00 (call 434-975-0224).

The focus is on Piedmont and Blue Ridge native plants that will add wildlife as well as beauty to your yard.  It includes examples of wildflowers, ferns, vines, edibles, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses, and trees, short and tall.

The layout of the book is wonderful, with pictograms making clear quickly the amount of light and the degree of soil wetness required by each plant.  The type of soil, the ultimate height of the plant, the color of the blooms and/or fall leaf color, the blooming dates, and even the plant’s natural habitat type are included in list form.  A brief write-up manages to convey a wealth of information about each plant’s usage by wildlife.

For example, I noticed that Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) was listed in the index.  I was surprised because I had always thought I must be the only person in the world to appreciate the beauty and usefulness of this plant that comes up in areas of poor soil in my yard.  But when I turned to the correct page for more information, I read that its fall and winter color was “incredible” and that it hosts 11 species of native caterpillars.

The authors mention caterpillar usage for almost every plant write-up in this guide.  It is somewhat unfortunate but true that the focus of landscaping-for-wildlife efforts these days is almost totally upon growing native plants to feed caterpillars as food for birds.

The problem is that people then think that caterpillars and birds are somehow more important in the natural world than other kinds of critters, which simply is not true.  Birds may feed their chicks an awful lot of caterpillars, but they also feed them a variety of other kinds of organisms as well.

The reality is that everyone should be creating nature-friendly gardens to sustain the entire spectrum of wildlife, not only caterpillars.  I do not like to see nature organizations putting out there such a limited view of the natural world.

Regrettably, these groups feel the only way to get folks to do something positive for wildlife is to appeal to their obvious fondness for birds.  However, if folks don’t grasp the big picture, they may take action that is actually detrimental to the natural world, and that can be far worse than taking no action whatsoever.

For example, butterfly (and other) organizations continue to suggest that folks plant Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to help the Monarch butterfly.  They do it because they know that people love the beauty of this plant and are more likely to want to grow it in their manicured gardens than the tall and ungainly Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Unfortunately, Butterfly Weed is usually too small a plant to support one Monarch caterpillar, let alone several.  (Please see The Blue Ridge Naturalist column, “Butterfly Weed Won’t Save Monarchs,” www.crozetgazette.com /2015/03/blue-ridge-naturalist-butterfly-weed-wont-save-monarchs)

But if only Butterfly Weed is available to a female Monarch, she will indeed lay eggs on it instead of moving on to find the Common Milkweed plants that would better serve her progeny.  No one wants to decrease the Monarch butterfly population, yet that can be the unintended consequences of growing Butterfly Weed.

Piedmont Native Plants does include, as would be expected, Butterfly Weed.  As with virtually all nature organizations, the authors selected the plants in this guide with aesthetics in mind.  However, if you truly wish to help wildlife, you cannot base all of your decisions upon beauty alone.

If everyone followed this course of action, an abundance of life forms would go extinct.  Many kinds of animals depend upon plants that do not possess the beauty humans give so much priority.  All native plants help wildlife, and you should welcome volunteer plants to your garden.

For example, you will not find False Nettle (Boehmaria cylindrica) listed in this guide, perhaps because it does not have showy flowers.  A native plant that came up one year in my yard, it coincided with an obvious increase in the number of Red Admiral butterflies, which I noticed seemed to be around those plants a lot.

To other gardeners, the False Nettle would have been a “weed” and undoubtedly pulled out.  But by letting it stay put, I was able to identify the plant and discover that False Nettle hosts Red Admiral butterfly caterpillars—a revelation many years ago that netted me an invitation by an entomologist to speak at a butterfly conference at Penn State, and to write an article for the magazine, American Butterflies.  There are always discoveries waiting to be made in nature.

I would suggest that if you feel the need for curb appeal, you could grow lovely plants in your front yard, but grow less attractive ones along the sides of your house and in the backyard.  In this way, you can reach out to all kinds of wildlife (not just caterpillars, butterflies, and birds) which is, after all, supposed to be the reason for “going native”.

I highly recommend Piedmont Native Plants as it can certainly get you going down the right path.  But please remember that a properly functioning environment depends upon a variety of life forms—both plant and animal.  Diversity isn’t just for human neighborhoods!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Marlene, thank you for this write up, which I posted on the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Facebook page, on a project that took so much effort from many volunteers who were dedicating their time, their deep knowledge and their skill, out of love for the subject. The Piedmont Native Plant guide is both a pleasure to look at and a valuable source of information..

    As one who has been reaching out to the public on the topic of native plants for many years and in two states, I can tell you that the message of the bird/butterfly – native plant connection is without doubt the single most effective tool there is for getting people to think about native plants. Hard as it is for some of us to understand, not everyone is interested in plants at all. Not everyone (as yet!) even understands that there ARE native plants. The fact that plants serve a purpose beyond flanking the front door is complete news to many. It takes a very concrete example to illustrate to those folks to show that plants deserve more of their attention. People will never understand the vital importance of conservation as whole without understanding that plants have special roles, special abilities, and unique contributions.

    I completely agree with you that all of us who are advocating for native plants need to broaden our message about the value of diversity. Our plants need to support all of local fauna, not just birds and butterflies; and as we are learning more about the complexity of plant relationships, we realize that we need to keep plant communities together. Diversity is paramount for conservation; not to mention preservation. But to spread this message, first we need an audience. Thank you for helping us to reach that audience!

    Sue Dingwell
    VNPS Webmaster

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