It’s in the teens and lightly snowing (again), but I’m keeping the promise of spring alive. Sitting on my breakfast table is a row of potted seedlings (prairie coneflower, western yarrow, and blue flax) stretching their tiny leaves out toward the thin rays of sunlight streaming in through my kitchen window. More seeds rest in my refrigerator, undergoing cold stratification (scarlet gillia, purple poppy mallow, blue mist penstemon). If I’ve successfully broken their dormancy, they’ll sprout soon after I plant them in their own pots in 1-2 weeks. I’ve never started seeds indoors before, so this is an experiment, but an important one because these aren’t just any seeds, these seeds are Colorado natives.
“Native” plants are those that are indigenous to an area and that don’t require human propagation. However, they’re often passed over in favor of plants that are showier or “easier” to grow in commercial and residential landscaping. Given that more and more land is being turned into strip malls and subdivisions all across the country, the impacts of supplanting native plants with non-native ornamentals have become more evident. While there have always been proponents of using native plants in landscaping, the so-called native plant movement has exploded in the last few years to combat this growing problem.
“So what’s the big deal? I like my rose garden and my butterfly bushes. Why plant natives?”
Native plants have had hundreds or thousands of years to adapt to an area and the wildlife within that area. In Colorado, a semi-arid state, native plants are more drought-tolerant than most non-natives so they’ll save you money on your water bill as well as conserve a precious resource. Native plants also don’t require fertilizers or pesticides like non-natives often do, reducing chemical usage.
As mentioned, native plants also co-evolved with the native wildlife in the area. While adult insects such as butterflies may feed on many different types of plants, native and non-native alike, their larvae are more often host-specific. A great example of this is the monarch butterfly whose larvae can only thrive on native milkweed species. Without those native hosts, they aren’t able to reproduce. When insects aren’t able to find food, this causes a domino effect, driving down bird and mammal populations as well, which are already negatively effected by lost habitat when their native forests, marshes, or grasslands are replaced by concrete and brick.
The horticulture industry tends to promote the same plants everywhere. The problem with this is that what results is often a monoculture–an area with one dominant plant. In the event that a disease or pest outbreak occurs, the outbreak can travel more quickly. Because non-native plants are more susceptible to diseases and pests than native plants already, the impacts of such an introduction can be devastating. Planting a variety of native plants ensures that you won’t lose your entire landscape.
Another potential issue with non-native plants is that they may actually be invasive plants. Invasive plants are plants that actually crowd out and replace other plants. The kudzu vine is a classic example of this. With no natural predators or deterrents and its ability to spread rapidly, it has gobbled up much of the southeastern United States. Closer to home, butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is also considered an invasive because it propagates quickly and tends to take over areas.
I’m not advocating entirely ditching your rose garden, but maybe consider planting some natives to go along with it. Planting native plants can just flat out be more fun. You’re almost guaranteed to have a yard that’s completely unique from your neighbors’ with all sorts of interesting textures and colors. You’ll probably see more wildlife too.
I can’t wait for the weather to warm up enough for me to plant my seedlings, but, until then, I’m entertaining myself thinking about what they’ll look like when they bloom and what sort of critters they’ll attract when they do.