When most people think about which plants to choose when landscaping their property or planting a garden, they focus on things that appeal to them. Brightly colored blooms and foliage of plants in the local nursery entice human eyes – but of what benefit are these plants to the ecosystem that sustains us?
The majority of plants we find at the big box garden centers are exotic species from other continents. These plants have not evolved with our native wildlife, and many have been bred for such specific traits that often they have little resemblance left to the species they descended from and even less ecological value. Even plants that are invasive and will spread into wild areas are still sold by the nursery industry like English ivy, vinca and more.
So what can we do as individuals? Well, we can start by knowing what is in our yards, what we are planting, and utilizing native plants that support biodiversity in our landscapes. Many of our insect species are threatened or endangered, but we can help them by providing the plants they need to breed, thereby increasing their numbers. The greater the diversity of native trees, shrubs and flowers we plant in our yards the more wildlife we will support. This includes not just insects but amphibians, birds, bats, and other mammals. The more habitat and food we provide, the more we bring our ecosystems back into balance. This has an indirect effect on human health and even disease risk – not just on the environment around us.
If you live in the North Eastern US, here are a few plant suggestions to get you started in using your yard to support biodiversity.
When is comes to supporting insect species, the genus Quercus is a real powerhouse. A single oak can support over 500 different species of lepidoptera – butterflies and moths. The caterpillars of these pollinator species are vital to nesting birds to feed their young. A single clutch of baby chickadees need thousands of caterpillars that only native trees like oaks can provide. In addition to being a host plant to beneficial insects, oak trees have other benefits like cleaner air and water, sequestering carbon and counteracting the heat island effect. Check out this step-by-step guide on how to grow your own oak tree for free.
Asclepias is the genus of plants best known for being a host plant to monarch butterfly caterpillars. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most important host plant for monarch butterflies, meaning if you want to support monarch populations, common milkweed does it best. Of course, you needn’t plant only common milkweed, there are many varieties of Asclepias that also benefit monarchs and many other pollinators. Find milkweed native to your area here.
Wild Blue Lupine
Lupinus perennis is rare in New England, though it is native to Eastern North America. A perennial plant in the pea family, sometimes called sundial lupine, it is the only host plant to the endangered Karner blue butterfly. Seeds are inexpensive and easy to germinate, a good source can be found here. If you live in the native range of Lupinus perennis, it is a must have ornamental flower, loved by many pollinators.
Lindera benzoin is a highly ornamental shrub resistant to disease and pests and has interest year-round with spring flowers, summer butterflies, fall foliage and berries. It is the host plant to the gorgeous spicebush swallowtail whose cartoonishly cute caterpillars are hard to miss and impossible not to love. It is highly attractive to many types of birds and other wildlife as well. You can purchase northern spicebush here.
The family Asteraceae has many different kinds to choose from. They are typically late blooming, providing much needed forage for pollinators at the end of the growing season. Asters are host plant to over 100 butterfly and moth species, and are deer resistant.Tall species can be cut back early in the season to encourage a more compact growing habit in ornamental flower beds. New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), pictured above, is great for sunny locations, while the blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) does very well in shady spots. Easy to grow from seed, direct sow in late fall.
Wrongfully blamed for fall allergies caused by ragweed, goldenrod of the genus Solidago is a bright and cheery pollinator magnet. It adds beautiful late season color to your garden, and is nicely paired with asters that bloom at the same time. Goldenrod is host plant to 115 butterfly and moth species, deer resistant, and an absolute must have for every garden. Seeds can be sown in late fall or early winter.
Get Started Today
There are many more gorgeous North American native plants to choose from that beautify your yard with color and life. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) and many more.
Check out the book, Native Plants For New England Gardens by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe of the New England Wildflower Society to help you learn how to design with native plants and create a beautiful wildlife habitat in your own backyard!