Are We Ecologically Useful?

Written in 2007, I know it’s kind of late to be reviewing Douglas Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. I also know the word “native plant” can grate on the nerves. But this book was good enough to get beyond all that grating stuff. What made it so good? I’m not exactly sure. Was it a simplified version of ecology? His warm, down to earth tone? Was it the fact that he’s an actual scientist with a PhD? Or was it a story about his neighbor and the beaver? Whatever it was, somehow it changed my view of the world and gave me a new hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity can not just survive but realize and live as a piece of the puzzle instead of as maker of the puzzle and ruler of all its pieces. Not sure I got that metaphor exactly right but I think you get the idea.

It also gave me the feeling that what I do with my garden is important. Like it’s not just about puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis. For once, it seems that maybe instead of making a negative environmental footprint, I might be doing something good. According to Tallamy, native plants are not only good but they are a crucial link to the survival of many species including possibly, ourselves.

Tallamy is not even a plant scientist. His specialty is bugs. He began his discovery in his own backyard in Pennsylvania when he discovered certain plants weren’t touched by insects yet other plants were. Then he realized the plants that weren’t getting eaten by insects were from other places like Asia. Upon further study, he realized certain insects picked certain native plants and certain birds ate those certain insects. It’s from these realizations that made him think maybe there’s something to the term, coevolution. Species that evolve together over millions of years may form complex relationships.

But the key to the issue here is my use of the word “certain”. Many animals including spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents and 96% of all terrestrial birds indirectly get energy from the sun by eating insects. Plants produce chemicals most insects can’t digest. For the most part, only insects that have shared a long history (as in like thousands or millions of years) with a certain plant, have developed the ability to digest the chemicals it produces. In other words, many animals have become specialized, meaning they have evolved to become dependent on other life in close proximity. Due to things such as western colonization, the industrial age and human population explosion, all happening in the last 500 or so years, the landscape has been dramatically changed and mass populations of native plants, the food for insects, have been either destroyed or drastically moved around due to human love of the exotic. Plants that evolved in one place for millions of years are either gone or somewhere far, far away and that means problems for the survival of many species.

Ok. So that’s easy, just plant native plants. Well, it gets cloudy real fast in the horticultural and gardening community. For one thing, there’s no way to really define what’s native and what’s not to a certain area. Nor is it easy to define how native a plant should be. For example, I live in Maryland and I buy seeds of plant species known to be native to my area but the seeds are harvested from plants in Minnesota. So does that make my plants true native plants? Then there was this question my husband had about how long does it take for a plant to become native to a certain area. There’s no answer for that other than to say that until that plant becomes useful to the ecosystem of that area. But what defines that? And I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasive species and cultivars. As I understand, invasive species include plants that have become a nuisance because not only are they not useful to an ecological system but they are thought to be harmful to that system. Cultivars are bred from natives to adapt to certain conditions and are often criticized for not being true natives and therefore not doing their native plant job of being useful. And last but by no means least, there’s that tiny thorn called human nature that encompasses things like class structure, culture, nostalgic associations with exotic plants, a compulsive need for a tidy and ordered landscape and the fact that many people take drastic measures to rid themselves of nature let alone plant something that attracts it.

So, the whole subject is about as confusing and complex as the many other environmental problems of the world and I find myself wondering what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to do. And that is most definitely a problem for a busy world who has about zero free time to analyze this issue let alone go out and make a pollinator garden. Tallamy does his best to be diplomatic about his cause and I think that’s why his book succeeds. He understands the human need for order especially with community pressures to “fit in” as well as associations of landscaping with class. A well kept yard is often high priority. Especially a well kept lawn. Do what we can, seems to be his only demand. He drives home the possibility that native plants can be orderly and beautiful additions to the garden. He doesn’t pound the reader to eradicate exotic plants in their own yards. He also doesn’t condemn the lawn and says there’s nothing wrong with it as long as there’s some room for ecologically functional plants. He doesn’t make the reader feel that if their plants aren’t the purist form of native they may as well get something from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Questions he doesn’t address are how agriculture fits into the scheme or the practicality of growing native plants. Native plants aren’t easy to find and when they are they are often expensive or not really all that local. Growing from seed can be tricky and getting local seed is a whole other issue. And what about the effects of climate change? But I think Tallamy’s point was to introduce readers to the simple concept that native plants are actually more important to the big picture than we may realize. They are in decline and if we have land we can do something about it. Lawns, for the most part, are lifeless areas. Adding even one native tree would be a huge improvement. He understands you can’t force this concept down people’s throats.

As for my own proof, I can only say that I have witnessed a dramatic increase in biodiversity in my own yard since adding native plants, or as close to being native as I can manage. When I moved to my property six years ago, it was a lawn surrounded by a border of tangled, exotic, invasive and native plants. There was life before, probably lots of it, but that was most likely due to the tangled border, not the lawn. Since then I’ve added many native plants and now I’ve witnessed not just more life but what seems to be a system of life, more species than I can name, including some of the more specialized species such as warblers and monarchs. Is it because of the native plants or would any plant other than turfgrass due? Or am I just noticing more? We may never know the complete truth of the matter but I’m willing to bet this is no accident and I’m also willing to bet it can’t hurt. For me, it’s proof enough. The more I notice, with all five senses, the intensity of life in my garden, the more I want to be a useful part. And I realize how much I need it, not just for my own enjoyment but for the survival of my species.

The other day, I went to a native plant sale at a church with my parents and niece. It was a huge success. Lots of plant vendors and buyers who happily loaded up wagons with plants. I, myself bought three little one foot plants, a paw paw and two winterberries at $15.00 each. A movie was playing in the church. There was Doug Tallamy himself on the screen talking about how oak trees support some 500 species of caterpillars. Later, my niece said with the sarcastic intensity only a twelve year old wearing braces and raised in suburbia could master, “They were saying only trees that are good for caterpillars can be alive. The rest should not be allowed to exist.” Somehow, that hit the nail on the head. It’s hard enough for us humans to understand ourselves, each other and all our creations, but it’s even harder to understand how we are pieces in a bigger puzzle. Or as Tallamy explains, like pieces from the game, Jenga. Except with native plants, the pieces are at the bottom. If you take too many out, the whole tower might collapse.

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