Friday, November 1, 2013

So What's the "Native Plant" Craze About?

 (Shagbark Hickory-Carya ovata supports 235 butterfly/moth species.)

What is a native plant?

A native plant can be described as a plant indigenous to a region before European settlement. Some botanists will say the plant is "native" if it naturally occurs or occurred within 100 miles, but I've also heard opinions that stretched as far as within 500 miles. For a more scientific definition refer to Bonap, you can find any indigenous North American Plant's native range. 

What is their significance?

The foundation of our ecosystems are native plants and the specific climatic/environmental conditions that shaped their beautiful, unique, and extremely complex communities. From the Redwoods in California, and the Everglades of Florida to the Bur Oak Savanna's of Ohio, each community supports a naturally sustaining network of organisms largely dependent on the organic infrastructure that these plants provide. 

P.S. Cultivars of native plants would not occur naturally in these communities with any normalcy, and contain different morphology than uncultivated native plants, potentially not fulfilling their ecological duties to the extent of their uncultivated counterparts.

What happened to these communities?

Ecologists estimate that 3-5% of American land is undisturbed, meaning never developed, logged, drained, tilled, or manipulated for human use. We've removed over 70% of our Eastern Forest community, and what is left, is now under constant threats of invasive plants we've brought over from other plant communities in foreign countries. Today all that is legally safe, is what is in preserves, land trusts, and parks, none of which are safe from invasive plant invasion without proactive measures. 

What's the effect of our mass development and disturbance? The natural extinction rate (worldwide) is about 1-5 species per year. As of now we are loosing species at 1,000-10,000 times that rate, loosing dozens of species per day. Biodiversity is a great loss, but hydrology changes, sediment pollution, carbon sink-loss, mass erosion-land degradation, amongst many other environmental issues are direct effects of our removal of these ancient plant communities. But there is still a future for us to mold into how we'd like continue forward. Let's talk first, more about the depth of the ecological state of emergency.

(Metropolitans and Agricultural lands in between have ecological consequences.)

The cost of our lifestyles

As previously stated, with only 3-5% of American land left undisturbed, of course extinction and endangerment of many plant and animal species will be a direct result of our monumental disturbance. In the East/Midwest, what we are left with are areas that are still undeveloped, unprotected fragmented forests that are undoubtedly highly susceptible to being sold for timber/logging, woodlots or "habitat islands" that serve little ecological value, and what we've protected legally in preserves/parks. Our agricultural land isn't going to decrease, if anything, as the countries' population and energy demands increase, it will also. Agricultural lands are highly sterile, and near lifeless outside of the crops we farm upon them. Our suburbs are now a large contributor to the 40+ million acres of land managed as lawn supporting very little wildlife. Just think about how far you must drive to find a truly high quality environment of over 1,000 acres in area, 50, 100, 250 miles? Personally as a Cincinnati resident I'd have to travel to west Versailles Indiana State Park, south to Red River Gorge, or east to the Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserves.  And what's in between, sterilized agricultural land and small towns and cities that aren't managed for biodiversity. Our land demands, and land management practices have lead to the isolation and devastation of countless species, with our largest preserves remaining the last safe place for ecology to function as it had for millions of years on this continent. But even these preserves are under attack from our disturbance as invasive trees, shrubs, and vines that we've imported crowd the understories, drape the edges, and shoot through the canopy gaps changing the total structure of the plant community leading to biodiversity decline also.

Nature natural nevermore

There was a time in which nature was a self-sustaining/recycling/maintaing natural system. But we've disturbed it so drastically, and quickly, then introduced so many pathogens, foreign insects, and foreign plants that the reality is, for us to retain some remnant of the biodiversity that once was prevalent in this country, we must actively maintain our preserved natural areas. We've already lost the majority of multiple tree species from foreign pathogen and insects, Elms, Chestnuts, Hemlocks, Ash Trees, and Butternuts are all in danger of becoming extinct within the century, or ecologically irrelevant. Prairies are being invaded by non-native grasses and forbs, forests are failing to reforest in areas where canopy gaps are filled by honeysuckle, young forests are smothered by invasive vines like kudzu, wetlands are now susceptible to purple loostrife and non-native cattail monocultures. After all that we have done, nothing is safe, nothing can be left to it's "own devices" as we've imported devices in the form of invasive plants, pathogens, and insects from other countries. This is now a challenge, that will require education, dedication, innovation, and inspiration to retain and restore the biological heritage of this country. Even in this hour of species loss, continual land/environmental degradation, and great biodiversity threats, remains time and opportunity for our metropolitans to become leaders in giving ecosystems a helping hand.

(The Cincinnati-NKY Metropolitan is home to over 2 million people.)

The place is here, the time is now (Reconciliation Ecology)

79% of Americans now live in cities. Cities and their metropolitan areas are also the biggest sources of pollution and quite uninhabitable for some wildlife. But we do have a clear choice in the society we want to build within our cities. For biodiversity to return, we need native plants, the foundation of these ancient communities. Our natural areas or undeveloped areas within our metropolitans sport the heaviest concentrations of non-native invasive plants in comparison to any other human dominated community. These areas are most often private property, but often to public property, right aways, and even park systems. With 79% of our population living within cities, man power is not what is lacking. Awareness, organization, and environmental stewardship is what is lacking. So how do we raise awareness about native plants, biodiversity, and invasive plants? I'd like to look towards the future, and focus on where the children/stewards of tomorrow are, churches and schools. Where there is a lawn there is a way and replacing un-recreationally used lawn with prairie land management saving schools and churches on their maintenance costs while providing the children and their parents an environmental educational infrastructure for learning about native plants, biodiversity, and invasive plants, I believe is a model that can be replicated from metropolitan to metropolitan. My private sector business is focused on providing this opportunity to the youth and their respective organizations whether it be churches or schools. Empowering/educating the youth is just one of many steps that must be taken to create the awareness required to instill the environmental stewardship needed to give nature a second chance, but let's look at other pieces of the puzzle also.

Where there's a lawn there's a way

As I said before, America manages over 40 million acres as lawn, about half and half split between residential and commercial/industrial sectors. Lawn is useful for recreation and sports, pathways, and other functional purposes. The reality is though, many of our +.5 acre lots are never used to their recreation potential simply because it is not needed. Since we have been presented no clear alternatives, we often end up paying for multiple acres of lawn to be mowed per year just because our hospital, church, office park, or other place of work bought a lot that big. Lawn equipment alone accounts for 5% of U.S. annual carbon emission, it is one of the biggest sources of water pollution from fertilizer and pesticide run-off, and is not only the most irrigated plant in America compared to any agricultural crop, it is the largest single source of water use in the residential sector. The environmental ethics behind excess lawn is enough to call for change, but species extinction from ecosystem replacement I think is another urgent reason to rethink our land management practices. Ohio was at one point over 90% forest and less than 10% prairie/wetland. When you see acres of lawn that support very little wildlife, try to envision the incredible virgin forests long removed from the very land we now manage as lawn today. All of the organisms that once relied on these acres we now manage as lawn will not return as long as we continue our lawn land management ways. If we could approach organizations with excess lawn that is not used functionally, and slowly but surely give it back to nature successionally starting with prairie land management as trees slowly grow in to create a savannah or forest habitat, we can create a patchwork of habitats for wildlife throughout our throughly "lawned" metropolitans. Along with these habitats we create and maintain (less intensely than weekly lawn mowing), we now offer our children safe good quality natural environments to play in and explore as opposed to the currently invasive plant choked wood lots we now have studded throughout the cities. While nuturing today's remaining wildlife, we have another opportunity to nuture tomorrow's stewards by large scale implementation of habitat restoration within our metropolitans. Where there is a lawn, there is truly a way.

(Wild Ones, a national native plant advocacy organization with local chapters)

So what's the "Native Plant" Craze About?

Life, America, organisms, flora, fauna, beauty, ethics, natural history, monarchs and milkweeds, swallowtails and golden alexanders, blue jays and shingle oaks, prairie sod, trillium, cardinal flower and humming birds, limestone, dolomite, sandstone, shale, purple coneflowers and gold finches, clearwing hawk moths and bergamot, pawpaw festivals, sassafras, curiosity, big bluestem and indian grass, switchgrass and little bluestem, compass plants and prairie docks, native bees, honey bees, mason bees, cucko bees, saddle backs and black cherries, pileated woodpeckers, gray squirrels, black squirrels, fox squirrels, white squirrels, carbon sinks and biomass, diversity, maximillian sunflowers, butterfly migrations, host plants and food plants, oak trees and hickories, orchids, petting the bumble bees, baptisia in the spring, mound ants, wetlands, bogs and fens, blazing stars and rattlesnake masters, sycamores and cottonwoods, red winged blackbirds, Carolina chickadees, cup plants and rosinweed, sugar maple and beech trees, robins and dogwoods, redbuds and service berries, spice bush, acorns and walnuts, musclewood and hophornbeam, violets and fritillaries, wild turkey and red wings hawks, skunk cabbage and pink lady slippers, prairie dropseed, joe pye and tiger swallowtails, soldier beetles, river birches, sedges, rushes, silt, sand, clay, humus, viburnums, cedars and waxwings, conservation, restoration, sequestration, hemlocks, butternuts, elms, chestnuts, ash trees, stiff goldenrod, pollinators, caterpillars, beetles, wasps, virginia creeper, hazelnuts, grey headed coneflowers, trumpet vine, passionflower, basswood, blueberries, viceroys, stewardship and community. 

This movement has great purpose, much more than wildflower enthusiasm. We know our natural history, we know what what was here before our mass "development", we understand the continual regression of biodiversity and species extinction, we also see the large void in today's youth not knowing woods without honeysuckle, or native wildflowers on the wood edges.But these important messages are honestly not worth preaching to quire, so I urge you to connect, organize, and educate to help transform our metropolitans yard by yard, park by park, school by school, and lawn by lawn into the ecological haven we are capable of achieving.

Books for Inspiration


  1. Thank you for your education, dedication, innovation, and inspiration to retain and restore the biological heritage of this country.

  2. Your writings are the best! I have never come across a better source of South Western Ohio plants on the internet or a published book! You are wonderful! Thank you, thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your enthusiasm! I'm very happy this has reached you.