This past summer I taught my wife the term “herbaceous perennial.” After I pronounced it a few times, defined it and used it in sentence as if at a spelling bee, she began to roll it around in her mouth as she walked our garden. “Her-BAY-shus,” she said over and over. “Perennials that die back to the ground each year,” I called after her from a distance as I weeded. “Is this a herbaceous perennial?” she asked, smirking as she touched the 8-foot stem of a joe pye weed in late August. “Yup,” I said, “and a native one at that.”
When I began the 2,000-square-foot garden four years ago, I was much more concerned about finding plants that wouldn’t suffocate in the clay soil in winter and spring, or whose roots wouldn’t be exposed by cracking cement-like soil in summer. In truth, I didn’t know much of anything. That meant non-native plants, common things the local nurseries sold—plants whose origins were likely to be in Asia, where most typical garden plants originate.
Slowly I began to think regionally, then locally. Why couldn’t I use native plants? Wouldn’t native plants grow better? Wouldn’t wildlife be as attracted to them? My experience growing up, or at least the stereotypes I’ve come to realize were stereotypes, was that native plants were weeds. Invasive, ugly, opportunistic, gangly monstrosities. But that’s what kudzu is, trumpet vine, Russian olive, loosestrife, dandelion.
In his book “Bringing Nature Home,” Douglas Tallamy points out that 95 percent of the plants pilgrims would have been familiar with will be gone within our lifetime. In addition, each year 1 percent of bird species go functionally extinct in their ecosystems, and 96 percent of bird species rely on native insect populations. In turn, those insects rely on native plants. All of these organisms have created symbiotic relationships that have evolved over millennia, and much longer. They know how to survive with and upon each other, and cannot adapt quick enough to survive if one link in the chain gives out.
At least 75 percent of flowering plants rely on roughly 200,000 insect species to pollinate them. A lot of these plants are ones we eat. In fact, one out of every three bites you take today will be the direct result of plant/insect pollination, most performed by honeybees, bumble bees and solitary native bees. (Not taking the loss of native plants alone, an average streetlight kills around 150 insects every night, either by zapping them or preventing them from feeding and reproducing—such is the siren song of exterior illumination.)
Is any of this enough reason to rethink the interactions we see in the environment around us and how we interact with it? As insect and bee populations dwindle due to habitat loss, pesticide use, Bt-corn and mysterious viruses, what can a person on a quarter-acre lot or less do?
As native plants become supplanted by non-native invasives, asphalt and agriculture, insects vanish. Birds vanish. Everything we become familiar with slips away almost overnight, imperceptibly. I lived in Oklahoma the first 10 years of my life and recall playing with Texas horned lizards, horny toads as we called them. They were everywhere. I caught them in fluorescent-colored plastic beach pails and made terrariums with sticks and grass blades. I pricked my small fingers on the horns at the tip of the horny toad’s head. Now, they are endangered as a result of increased chemical and pesticide use against their main prey (ants) and the increase of paved roads, which they love to sun themselves upon.
The realization that kids will no longer have an experience like mine becomes what memory is itself—fleeting, fluid and mythic, an echo like a taste or touch. Nothing more. How can a living creature, flesh and blood, become so momentary like a puff of smoke? How can we depend on ourselves, each other, our world—have a place of stability, a firm spiritual and ethical foundation—without horny toads? Bluebirds? Dotted skipper butterflies? Honeybees? Salt Creek tiger beetles?
Everything begins with just one native herbaceous perennial. Soil biology improves. Water tables level off. Insects feed on plants they know, whose chemical signature they are adapted to genetically. Birds, so dependent on the protein of insects, especially as they feed their young, flourish. As my garden has grown, more and more varieties of birds find their way to this pointillist dot in Nebraska. I have fewer weeds, true weeds. The soil takes longer to dry out—it’s even turning a richer brown, almost black. I don’t even fuss with the native plants. Once established, and properly sited (this means doing some research online, as plant tags are often wrong), they do what they do best—grow like gangbusters.
In my garden I began with iris and butterfly bush. Once native plants established themselves, insects ignored the non-native plants like I ignore speed limits. The wild senna, with its intense, pea-like yellow blooms from July to September, had no less than 50 insects on it at one time. Eupatoriums like boneset and joe pye weed—wonderful musk-smelling plants—brought in moths and butterflies, then beneficial predatory wasps and beetles, which rid me of aphids in a few days. Milkweed. Mountain mint. Bee balm. Blue lobelia. Ironweed. Coneflower. Sunflowers. Compass plant. Indian grass. The solidago, New England aster and smooth aster (aster laevis) seem as if they’ve entered a fourth dimension as clouds of a hundred insects gorge, weaving flight paths that Belgian lace masters would envy. I don’t clean up the garden in October anymore, so as to encourage insect hibernation. Everywhere I look leaves are curled around spider egg sacs and caterpillars, ready for the long winter. Preying manti cocoons dot the fence, and black swallowtail chrysalides hide in the foliage. The echo of the summer blooms lasts deep into the following year.
Early last fall, and every night an hour before dusk, a ruby-throated hummingbird visited several blue sage, Salvia azurea “Nekan,” a sport discovered just north of Lincoln. I can’t get more native than this sage. And sitting on the deck, hiding behind the butterfly bushes that at least shelter juncos and chickadees in winter, I hear something as the hummingbird zips toward me and over the roof. I hear it in the bees I accidentally graze as I walk by their frenetic gathering on some aster. I hear it in the words I’ve taught myself and my wife. Everything in this place is an echo of something else, without which we would never come home.
Find Native Plants to Your Area:
Buy Native Prairie Plants:
Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum Plant Sales
Native Prairie Plant Blogs:
Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants
The Prairie Ecologist