Plant Natives to Keep our Ecosystems Running Smoothly

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Plant Natives to Keep our Ecosystems Running Smoothly

By Bill Sublette, Piedmont Master Gardener 

Growing interest in ecological gardening has increased demand for native plants and all the good things they provide, both for the gardener and for the planet.  

Why plant natives? Entomologist Douglas Tallamy, a leading voice for restoring native plant communities in home landscapes, explains that native plants have co-evolved with native wildlife to form intricate beneficial relationships—like parts of a well-oiled machine. Take away or reduce native plant species, and the machine starts to underperform. Add them back, and productivity improves. 

Native plants are particularly important to what scientists call the food web. For instance, they supply food for plant-eating insects, such as caterpillars, which in turn are a vital source of energy-rich nutrition for most birds, especially when feeding their young. 

But most insects “are very fussy about which plants they eat,” Professor Tallamy writes in Nature’s Best Hope, one of his recent books. Perhaps the best-known example is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars depend almost solely on milkweeds (genus Asclepias) for their diet. No milkweeds, no monarchs. Such specialized relationships have developed between a host of other insects and native plants as they evolved together over hundreds of thousands of generations. 

By contrast, many of the ornamental plants we grow in our gardens originated in far-away places and are relative newcomers to our ecosystems. They provide little support for native wildlife and, as Tallamy puts it, can throw a monkey wrench in the works of our natural systems. Plus, some introduced plants are invasive and are displacing native flora. Think Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and the English ivy overwhelming trees along our roadsides, to name just a few.

In addition to providing food, nesting places and safe havens for wildlife, native plants are fully adapted to our climate and soils. When the right plant is matched with the right place—a patch of dry shade, for example, or a moist lowland area—natives will thrive without the extensive watering, fertilizing, and pesticides that exotic plants often require. This can translate into less toil and less expense for the gardener. 

Where to Purchase Native Plants

Early fall is the optimum time to add native plants to your landscape. But where can you find them? Increasingly, at a store near you. 

In recent months, Piedmont Master Gardener volunteers have been reaching out to garden centers, nurseries and other retailers in our area to promote the native plants they carry and to increase the supply and variety of native plants they make available to their customers. This initiative is part of Plant Northern Piedmont Natives, a campaign spanning 11 Virginia counties that is promoting greater use of native plants in our local yards and gardens.   

In their outreach, the volunteers are not only encouraging plant retailers to stock more native plants but also to make them more visible. To that end, the volunteers are providing these businesses with a free package of promotional materials, including a display banner that reads “Find Native Plants Here” and copies of a brochure titled “Why Plant Natives?” that outlines the many benefits of native plants. In addition, the volunteers are applying bright red “Virginia Native” stickers to plant containers to indicate the plants are native to the Northern Piedmont ecoregion. 

“Shoppers often find it confusing when they try to determine what is and what isn’t locally native. Our labels will make that clearer,” said Bernice Thieblot, one of the leaders of this effort. “Also, by building partnerships with our local plant retailers, we are helping them raise awareness of the importance of native plants to healthy ecosystems, and the reduced care and maintenance they require once established.”

Fritillary on monarda

As of mid-September, participating garden centers include The Corner Store in Ruckersville, Eltzroth & Thompson Greenhouses, Fifth Season Gardening, Ivy Corner Garden Center, Ivy Nursery, ProTech Farm and Nursery in Barboursville, Snow’s Garden Center, and Southern States at both the Harris Street and Leake Square locations. These are in addition to area nurseries that specialize in native plants, such as Hummingbird Hill Nursery, Little Bluestem, Twinleaf Native Nursery, The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen and LaLa’s Garden.

The Plant Northern Piedmont Natives campaign is part of a statewide effort launched with the support of the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. In addition to the Piedmont Master Gardeners, more than two dozen other organizations and government agencies are engaged in the campaign. 

Together they are encouraging home and professional gardeners to grow plants from a list of some 280 species of trees, shrubs, vines and perennials native to our region, which encompasses the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, as well as Buckingham, Culpeper, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson, Orange and Rappahannock Counties. (To learn more about the statewide network of campaigns, visit www.plantvirginianatives.org.)

Right Plant, Right Place, Right Purpose

As a next step, the campaign is developing printed materials retailers can use to help customers select the right plant for specific conditions or specific purposes, such as container gardening or gardening for pollinators. For instance, gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) and lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrate) are among the plants recommended for hot, sunny spots; plants such as mountain mints (Pycnanthemum species) and monardas (scarlet bee balm and wild bergamot) are sure bets for supporting pollinators. 

Other resources for identifying locally native plants include a database on Albemarle County’s website at albemarle.org/nativeplants/. There’s also the indispensable and recently updated Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens, covering more than 200 species and how to use them. A PDF of the booklet can be downloaded from www.plantvirginianatives.org/native-plants-for-northern-piedmont. The Piedmont Master Gardeners’ website (piedmontmastergardeners.org, under the tab Gardening Resources) offers links to this reference and many others, including regional native plant guides published by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. 

Check them out and start planting. You will help our local ecosystems run more smoothly and find even more enjoyment in your garden. 

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