Native plants play an important role in the local ecosystem. Native plants occur naturally in the region in which they evolved and have developed relationships with other organisms in the area that are mutually beneficial. For instance, native plants provide habitat and nourishment for insects and insects are pollinators for plants.
Plants have a specific mixture of chemicals to protect their leaves from being eaten. Insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have adapted to the chemical defenses of those plant lineages and can digest the chemicals of their host’s leaves. Of the insects that eat plants, 90% can develop and reproduce on the plants with which they share an evolutionary history and can eat plants in three or fewer families. Native plants and insects have a co-evolved relationship in the local ecosystem.
Plants are the ecological basis on which life depends, wildlife and people. Changed landscapes especially sprawling development and expansive lawns have disrupted food webs. Cities, suburbs and agriculture take up vast amounts of land that is not natural. Native plants and plant habitats have been disrupted or eliminated. Plants for wildlife are sources of food and shelter to survive and reproduce. If particular plants are reduced or eliminated, species that relay on them become threatened or endangered. Monarch butterflies can digest the chemicals in milkweed plants but are unable to eat other plants. The significant decline of monarch butterflies, 96% loss since 1976, is related to loss of plant habitat. Most landscape plants are from different countries. These exotic or alien species generally do not serve the local food web. The introduced plants have not had the millenniums of time for insects to adapt to these alien species. Insects cannot or will not eat them.
Entomologist Doug Tallamy studies ways insects interact with plants and the biodiversity from the interactions. His research shows native oak trees support over 500 species of caterpillars while the Asian ginkgo tree hosts 5 species of caterpillars. The oaks do not become riddled with holes since birds eat most of the caterpillars before they get large. To feed one clutch of chickadees both adults were oberved providing 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars of several species of caterpillars. A diversity of particular plants in the vicinity was essential. Specific native plant species are essential for various butterflies and moths.
Plants matter. They are a conservation tool. Home landscapes can support life within local ecosystems and the local food web. Using native plants can help restore habitat for wildlife including insects and birds.
What you can do:
- Spread the word about the importance of native plants.
- Reduce or eliminate pesticide use.
- Plant native plants.