Surrounded as we are now by the beauty of Texas wildflowers, it is a good time to think about native plants in our own gardens.
“Wild” are generally those plants that grow in fields, along the highway, in spots where they appear to be untended, but in fact many of those bright and cheery flowers were planted and replanted to keep them blooming year after year. “Natives,” on the other hand, are plants that occur naturally in a region in which they evolved. They are a part of a natural ecology that includes plants, insects, animals, birds, climate and people. In short, native plants, are the stuff of life.
Native trees, for example, provide shelter, food, habitat and more for birds, insects and other native creatures, including people who depend on them for shade and fresh air.
Research by the entomologist Doug Tallamy has shown that native oak trees support more than 500 species of caterpillars whereas imported trees from Asia can support only five species and less in some cases. And it isn’t just that we love caterpillars (and the butterflies and moths tbey turn into that pollinate many plants), they are an essential source of food for the native birds that live in the trees.
The problem with the alien (non-native) species we bring into our landscapes is that they are perceived as alien life forms to the creatures that grow up here. When you see those ridiculous palm trees planted in new developments in the Hill Country, you can be sure that no native creature, bird or mammal or insect, recognizes them as helpful in any way. Before an animal can use a tree or flower, they have to be able to recognize them as such. No matter how lovely a flower might be, if it doesn’t offer nectar or pollen, it will not help the bees and butterflies survive.
Beauty. There are many reasons to choose native plants when you are adding plants to your landscape. First, of course, they are attractive. Many native plants offer beautiful flowers, produce fruits and seeds and change colors as the seasons change.
Native plants also look like they “belong” here. It is startling to see those palm trees amidst a native oak forest. Our sense of this place where we choose to live comes in great part from the native and natural landscape. Wildflowers, redbud, and many other native flowering plants and trees just look right and give us a sense of place that imported plants do not.
Low maintenance. Native plants know how to grow here — they’ve been growing here for centuries —so they are extremely low-maintenance and require little or no care from you. Imported plants often have requirements that are not locally available and as a result the gardener is constantly feeding, spraying and replanting. Non-native grasses are in need of frequent mowing that leads to the use of carbon-spewing machinery. Native grasses can be short or tall naturally. You get to pick.
Non-toxic. Part of that sturdiness means you don’t have to even think about adding artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides and herbicides to your yard. Your landscape automatically becomes a healthier place to walk and play and putter.
Combat climate change. Landscaping with native plants can combat climate change by reducing the amount of chemicals in the air and water, by using native grasses to discourage frequent lawn mowing and by sequestering carbon in the soil and plants that are growing naturally. Restoring the Earth to its natural state is essential to combating climate change.
Water conservation. Native plants have evolved by growing with available water. They are adapted to Texas weather conditions — often much water in a short time, then no water for a longer time. Native plants can take it and take care of themselves. A native garden also holds the soil in place discouraging runoff and wasteful water practices. Deep-rooted native grasses and other plants work together to discourage flooding and filter running water.
Encouraging all life. Whether you have a small “pocket” garden in town or many acres in the country, you can choose plants that will encourage a healthy environment and healthy neighborhood. The folks at Native American Seed, who gather and provide seeds for native grasses, flowers and other plants, explain the difference between imported grass from Africa such as Bermuda grass and native grasses: “Alien grass creates a dense, matted, tangled turf. Native prairie grasses are typically bunch forming. This characteristic allows for wildlife to construct micro-trail systems under the grass canopy by traveling around the crowns of the root bases. Prairie birds and many small mammals rely on this habitat for their basic patterns of reproduction and mobility. The overstory grass provides protection from soaring hawks and other predators.” (seedsource.com)
Except deer. Oddly enough, a native garden is not nearly as attractive to browsing deer as alien gardens. The reason for this is that native plants have developed their own methods of staying alive in their native environment, which contains deer. Many natives such as Copper Canyon daisy and wild bergamot have scents that deer find unappealing. Others repel deer with their coarse, rough or spiny textures.
Spring encourages planting and outdoor fun. This is a great time to adjust our gardening choices to do the best for our gardens and our community. Completely changing from alien to native in your yard might take time and effort, but it is easy to begin by adding a few native plants and enjoy all the benefits they provide. Austin is lucky to have great local nurseries that provide plants and assistance. Shop them for your garden needs and the box stores for other things.
Judy Barrett is the author of Homegrown Hints newsletter as well as many books such as "What Can I Do with My Herbs?," "Easy Edibles" and "Yes, You Can Grown Roses."