Impacts on Animals and Systems: A Misguided way of using Native Plants

Section of a natural grassland in Albemarle County, with about 125 species in the view, and 15-20 plants per square foot.

Also perpetuating the issue of species and habitat loss in the Piedmont is the idea and practice that an individual plant can support wildlife. It cannot, and many well-intentioned people and organizations are falling into a trap. A plant may attract wildlife, and for some reason we assume it is doing something good beyond attraction. The assumption is nearly as ridiculous as assuming a human’s health is improved by being attracted to a donut. Animals will be animals. Divorced of its natural community, a native plant cannot support wildlife in a healthy, sustainable manner. The nursery and landscape industry has taken advantage of our tendency to value and strive for individual strength, autonomy, and proficiency by putting the focus on individual species. Most often a page in a plant guide, or on a label, is much like looking at a baseball card, or a stat sheet. What happened to context, and the ideas of teamwork and community? Or of integrated systems and function? Why has the horticulture industry succeeded in convincing us that a hand can still function when it is severed from the body? It is worth repeating: could they be taking advantage of our tendency to value and worship individuals? 

Monarch butterfly resting on a Virginia pine sapling in a Piedmont Prairie.

Monarch butterfly resting on a Virginia pine sapling in a Piedmont Prairie. Insects, including the monarch butterfly, need all parts of the habitats that support them, including grasses, flowering perennials and annuals, vines, shrubs, and trees.

Whatever the reason, it has resulted in an industry that uses plants for decoration, utility, or to attract little zoos of critters. They do this in order to take advantage of an old and tired aesthetic, and a new “green” movement that lacks a nuanced grounding in ecology. Selling milkweed does very little for monarchs (and it often does harm in application). What, how, and where flora are applied is important. Conserving or restoring monarch habitat is what is needed, and a milkweed plant is such a small part of that. Selling a showy aster for someone’s garden does nothing to support pollinators, it just attracts them to a garden with such low ecological integrity that it becomes a deathtrap. Again, restoring the habitat that the aster is naturally part of, in all its richness and diversity, provides the exact thing the pollinator needs: the balanced evolutionary context from which the pollinator emerged (some local variant of a natural plant community). 

The Piedmont Ecoregion not only misses its natural grasslands, but it is plagued by a frame of mind that prevents the native landscape movement from playing an effective role in restoration ecology. Without a change in the way people think about animal-habitat relationships, and an awareness of natural plant communities that includes the grasslands that should be here, the Piedmont Ecoregion will never realize its full potential for biodiversity conservation. 

 

Top photo: Section of a natural grassland in Albemarle County, with about 125 species in the view, and 15-20 plants per square foot. This is the landscape that our birds, bees, and butterflies need. Well-intentioned native gardeners and landscapers often fall far short of creating something that truly supports pollinators and other wildlife. The primary issue is lack of patience, and an adherence to an aesthetic that simply does not put a priority on the needs of native animals. Wildlife needs the evolutionary context they emerged from, in all its glory.