Why Native Plants Matter (And Why You Need Them)
Why do native plants matter? What makes a plant native, anyway? And why should you care? When you’re starting to cultivate abundance, native plants probably aren’t the first thing on your mind. But ignoring these plants will result in less abundance on your property—and consequences for the wider world as well. If you want to make the living world around you come alive, you need to have native plants. But why? Let’s answer these questions.
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Native plants are an important part of a healthy ecosystem. But they’re often passed over in a lot of permaculture circles.
In permaculture designs, native plants are often kept to zone 5—the outskirts that you don’t manage. Think about the parts of your property that you don’t visit on a regular basis—the so called “back 40”.
These are usually the areas where native plants are found on a property. But unless you have a lot of land, you may not even have a zone 5 or “back 40” area.
On a small lot, it might seem like a waste of space to have native plants in your production areas. Why prioritize native plants when you could be growing more food?
Isn’t it better to grow your own food in the places where you spend your time?
I understand why you might see it this way. But if you leave out native plants, you could very well be creating more work for yourself and decreasing your harvests.
You’re missing out on an important step to make the living world around you come alive.
Let’s dive into the reasons why native plants matter, and why you should be including these plants on your property. But first make sure to grab your free native plant tracker so you can easily keep track of native plants that are a good fit for your property.
What are Native Plants? – The Trouble with Most Definitions
Before we start talking about why native plants matter, we need to answer a simple question.
What is a native plant?
As simple as this question might seem, answering it has proven to be a challenge.
In the US, the most common definition you’ve probably seen is that a native plant is a plant that was found growing in a given area before Europeans arrived.
Of course, this ignores the fact that native civilizations traded plants between each other, cultivating and shaping the “wild” for as long as humans have inhabited this space. Just think about how far corn (maize) had spread from its original homeland.
Plants are also transported from one area to another by natural processes, such as wind, water, and the movement of animals.
These flaws in the above definition has resulted in the alternative idea that, once a plant is established in an area and has become part of the local ecosystem, then it’s become native—or at least naturalized.
This idea has been taken to the extreme by the view that all plants are native to the Earth, so the very question of whether a plant is native is meaningless. Instead, they say, we should just focus on promoting plant diversity and ignore the question of native versus non-native plants.
Unfortunately, diversity of plant life does not always translate into a diversity of animal life.
It turns out that these ideas about native plants are missing a critical understanding of the role of native plants in their ecosystem—the role native plants play in supporting a diverse insect population.
Cabbage Butterfly vs. the Monarch -- The Case of Specialized, Picky Insects
When you think of the insects that eat your garden plants, chances are that the insect you dread is what can be called a “generalist.” That means it’s easy-to-please when it comes to meal-planning. It can eat lots of different types of plants.
Even the common cabbage butterfly, who’s larvae is a common pest on broccoli and other brassicas, can eat over 30 different plants. Most of those plants, like nasturtiums, aren’t even brassicas!
But roughly 90% of all plant-eating insects aren’t like the cabbage butterfly. Instead they’re more like the monarch butterfly—they’re picky!
These specialist insects often only eat a single type of plant, like the monarch and its well-known reliance on milkweed.
But the monarch is not the exception in the plant eating insect world—it’s the rule.
Whereas a non-native plant may support only a handful of species of insects, a native plant could support dozens and in some cases even a 100 plus species of insects!
Every single native plant supports a number of these specialist insects. But without the native plants, we lose the picky insects.
Gone. Like that.
A True Definition of Native Plant
This role in supporting the specialist picky insects is at the core of what makes a plant native—and why it matters. It’s why all the earlier definitions were missing the mark.
In fairness to the early thought-leaders of permaculture, the relationship between native plants and specialist insects was not well-known when they were doing most of their work.
But the information available to us today is powerful and convincing. It’s worth looking at this important issue with fresh eyes.
When you’re looking at native plants, the question that really matters is this: Are there specialist insects in my area that depend on this specific plant?
If the answer to that question is yes, then the plant can be considered native. But if the answer is no, then no matter how naturalized the plant is, it’s still not a native plant for your area.
Plants that don’t support specialist insects are simply not fully integrated into their new home. These non-native plants may provide a number of benefits to the ecosystem, but they’re still less integrated into to the local ecosystem than a native plant.
Wild Tip: Native Plants and Picky Insects
If you’re interested in learning more about native plants and their role in supporting specialist (picky) insects then I highly recommend checking out the book Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy.
So back to our original question… what is a native plant?
The definition I like best is this:
A native plant is a plant that has adapted to live with the other plants and animals that make up the community of life it is found in.
In other words, a native plant is a plant that has co-evolved with native specialist insects that rely exclusively on that plant for their survival.
What I like about this definition is that it’s based on the function of the native plant, rather than the length of time it’s been in an area.
It allows for all non-native plants to eventually become native. Over time, insects will adapt to take advantage of these non-native plants. They’ll become specialists!
But this is a slow process that can take tens of thousands of years. For nature, that’s the blink of an eye. But for us… Well, we don’t have that long to wait!
So let’s include native plants on our properties and support those 90% of plant-eating insects that are picky!
Why Your Garden Needs Native Plants
So what’s in it for me?
You might be thinking, “Okay, I get it. Native plants are critical for the local ecosystem. And they support a bunch of picky insects. But I need to feed my family, and those picky insects don’t help me.”
I hear you. And I understand why it might seem that way.
But the truth is that without those picky insects, you’ll face a lot more pests, and your land will be less productive.
Think about the role of these picky insects in the environment.
Most of these insects are so small you won’t even notice them. (Or maybe that’s just because they’re not going after your vegetables…)
But who does notice them?
The birds, spiders, predatory insects and other wildlife that eat them.
And guess what? Good news! Those bug-eaters will happily eat up your garden pests along with the rest of the food on the menu.
Without the picky insects, you just won’t see as many birds, spiders and predatory insects, since there won’t be as much food for them.
So native plants bring the picky insects. And the insects bring the bug-eaters that take on the pests that eat your garden plants.
The result is a more diverse and abundant property, with less pests and more food for your family and community.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have a large population of picky insects that won’t eat my vegetables than the generalist insects that love to munch on a tomato or carrot!
And don’t forget the permaculture concept of stacking functions!
Every native plant also has its own set of attributes that can help your property in other ways.
You can plant native plants that not only support picky insects, but also provide food for your family and community, or provide chop-and-drop mulch, or fix nitrogen, or feed your livestock… I think you get the idea.
Whenever you’re looking for plants to serve a specific function (or functions), if you can find a native plant that will do the job, you’ll get even more powerful results.
The Big Picture: Native Plants, Your Property, and the Wider World
And there’s another reason your garden needs native plants.
Did you know picky insects make up about a third of all animals on the planet?
That’s a lot of life to just push aside.
Can you really say you're cultivating abundance for wildlife if you leave out a third of all animal life?
You may have read about something called the insect apocalypse—the sharp decline of hundreds of thousands of insect species that is taking place all over the world. Given how important insects are to, well, all the other life on earth, it’s scary business.
The population collapse is usually attributed to pesticide use. But that’s only part of the story.
Because all over the world, native landscapes are being torn apart at faster and faster rates and redeveloped with non-native plants.
Across greater ad greater parts of the globe, there’s just no food for the specialist insects.
So they die.
The things we do on our own land have consequences for the wider world.
What we grow—and what we don’t grow—matters.
If you want to learn more about native plants, then make sure to check out my series of blog posts all about native plants.
Native Plants Series
This post is part of an ongoing series all about native plants and how you can use them to cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife on your property.
- 15 Ways Your Property Will Benefit from Native Plants
- 2How to Get Started with Native Wild Vegetables
- 3How to Find Native Plants for Your Property
- 4Why Native Plants Matter (And Why You Need Them) - current post
Growing with Nature is about cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. Incorporating native plants throughout your property is a vital part of this, and it will help you make the living world around you come alive.
I’m not a purist. I grow lots of non-native plants. But I also don’t limit the native ones to the back 40 or zone 5. Instead, I mix native plants in all my growing areas—even my vegetable garden!
You can do it too. And I know you’ll be happy with the results!
What native plants are growing on your property? Leave a comment to let us know!
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