Most people know that native plant species are critical in preserving the health of ecosystems. But it is not often that we stop to think about why native plants are so important to protect. LandHealth’s Whitby Avenue Natural Resource Inventory (NRI) sparked my curiosity to learn more about how specifically native plants contribute to overall ecosystem health. Pairing the NRI with the lab class last semester at Haverford College, I became interested in learning more about native plants; the majority of the plant species I observed during my time in XX were invasive.
Native plants occur naturally in the region they inhabit. All living things (including humans) depend on native plants for survival, the glue that holds ecosystems together. Local birds rely on native plants and the insects that evolved with them to survive. Restoring native plant habitat is essential in preserving plant and animal health and biodiversity-- one of the most important factors of ecosystem health!
Native plants have many benefits. They are low maintenance, visually appealing and healthy for places and people because they don't require pesticides to maintain them. They help fight climate change because they reduce the need for heavy machinery such as lawn mowers to maintain, and they store carbon dioxide. They also conserve water because they are well-adapted to the surrounding environment and they help maintain healthy habitats for birds, insects, and mammals.
Non native plants can be harmful because they spread uncontrollably (e.g. purple loosestrife, Japanese barberry, Asian honeysuckles) and degrade habitat for native plants and animals. They can choke out native plants, reduce food and habitat availability for other plants and animals as well as throw off the healthy behavior of pollinators and other insects and birds that eat native plants and fruit. An uncontrolled spread of non-native plants can lead to the extinction of native plants and animals, which is why protecting native species is crucial in preserving ecosystems.
Native plant habitats are becoming more and more difficult to maintain as human-influence over landscapes continues to increase. Lawns, often manicured and maintained with harsh chemicals and intrusive practices, cover 40 million acres across the U.S. and cannot support healthy ecosystems. Landscaping choices are extremely important and can affect the livelihood of populations of birds and insects, which in turn either throw off or preserve ecosystems. Every time we choose native species, we choose the health of our planet.
Audubon has a useful database that shows which plants are native to a specific area and which birds are attracted to these plants. I tested out this database and searched native species where I live-- Freeport Maine! Here are a couple of native species I found: Alternate-Leaf Dogwood and Allegheny Service-Berry (photos below). The text in the photos include the name, scientific name, photo, appearance and growth preference, and birds the plant may attract. Be sure to check out native plant species in your area!
There are several ways to protect native plant species: first, create native plant gardens. This is a great way to restore and revitalize local ecosystems and make them healthy habitats for birds and other animals. Guides such as the one created by Audubon make it easy to distinguish and care for native plant species. Second, introduce native species into unhealthy ecosystems and work to protect and maintain them to revitalize the area and restore balance. It is important that we all do our part to help cultivate healthy living conditions to support the wellbeing of all living things.
Audubon. (n.d.). Native Plants Database. Audubon. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.audubon.org/native-plants
Audubon. (n.d.). Why Native Plants Matter. Audubon. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter
Stack, L., & Connery, J. H. (2020). Bulletin #2500, Gardening to Conserve Maine's Native Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid. Cooperative Extension Publications. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/2500e/