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Natives, Exotics, and Invasives – What You Need to Know

Natives, Exotics, and Invasives – What You Need to Know

Natives, Exotics, and Invasives – What You Need to Know

The wild panda eats 99% bamboo. They will sometimes eat other plants or a small rodent, but it is mostly bamboo. So how much trouble would Pandas be in if the bamboo was removed? A lot.

Pandas are the most famous picky eater, but the United States has creatures just as finicky.

The caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly only eats milkweed and the Black-footed Ferret almost only eat Prairie Dogs. So if the milkweed disappeared, or the Prairie Dogs died, these two animals would be in trouble, just like the Panda.

The problem is, the milkweed and Prairie Dogs are disappearing.

Habitat Loss

According to the Audubon Society, in the last century 150 million acres in the United States of habitat were lost to urban sprawl. What does this mean for animals? Habitat loss reduces the amount of area  in which animal can live. In short, it limits an animal’s access to food, water and shelter. This limits an animal’s life and how many babies it can have.

Monarch on Viburnum in Author's yard

Monarch on Viburnum in Author’s yard

Habitat loss reduces the amount of area  in which animal can live. In short, it limits an animal’s access to food, water and shelter.

The Monarch’s habitat is field edges. The farmers would grow a crop, like soybeans, but where the field ended all kinds of ‘weeds’ also would grow. These ‘weeds’ were left alone in the past because spraying the weeds would kill the soybeans.

When Roundup ready crops were made, the farmers could suddenly spray the field edges and their crops would be fine. The Roundup would only kill the ‘weeds.’

Unfortunately, these ‘weeds’ were the very plants Monarchs need to live – milkweeds and other prairie flowers. So as the farmers sprayed, the Monarchs had less habitat in which to live, so they couldn’t have as many babies.

In the 1990s the Xerces Society estimated that 1 billion Monarchs migrated to Mexico each fall from the United States. As of 2015 only 42 million are left. That may seem like a lot, but it is a loss of 80%. While there is some controversy about this, one study does suggest the Monarch may be extinct in 20 years.

Prairie dogs are having the same problems as milkweed. People just don’t want them there. While milkweed is being sprayed with herbicide, prairie dogs are being poisoned and shot.

Prairie dogs are only found in the grasslands of the central United States. Unfortunately for them, these grassland habitats have been plowed for crops or used for cattle grazing. Since the prairie dogs eat grass, just like cows do, they are regularly killed in large numbers. Since the 1900s the population of Prairie dogs has fallen 95%.

This makes things bad for the Black-footed Ferret since their food supply, like that of the Monarch, is dying.

What does this have to do with native plants?

A habitat is made of the plants that grow there. One cannot have a grassland without grass, or a forest without trees. Plants are the foundation of a habitat.

But, a grassland in the United States has completely different grass than that of Africa.

For example, back to our farmer’s soybean field, let’s say that the farmer felt bad for the spraying and re-planted some flowers. He went to the store and purchased the prettiest flowers he saw. The tag said Purple Loosestrife.

He plants the Purple Loosestrife along his field margins, and it looks beautiful. The butterflies come and eat, but there is no milkweed so the Monarchs can’t lay their eggs. No baby Monarchs this year for this field.

Now repeat that across the country. It doesn’t look good for the Monarchs.

Native plants, like the milkweed, are important because plants and animals have evolved side by side to live with each other. A native plant is a plant that grows naturally in the region where they evolved. Many plants and animals have partnerships, where one relies on the other to survive. If you remove a native plant from an area, this partnership is lost and one or both may die out.

“Many plants and animals have partnerships, where one relies on the other to survive. If you remove a native plant from an area, this partnership is lost and one or both may die out.” 

Exotic Plants, are plants that are not from your area. Most of the plants you see at a garden center are exotics. Why? Because bugs here don’t eat them. They don’t eat them because the insects in this country did not evolve to eat a plant from Asia. So they look pretty in the garden center, and in your yard.

And that is bad. Why? If the bugs are not eating the plants, there are less bugs. Without the bugs, the food chain begins to weaken. According to the National Wildlife Federation, it takes 4,800 caterpillars for a chickadee to raise one nest of chicks. That is a lot of caterpillars. Without native plants for the caterpillars to eat, how will the caterpillars live? Without caterpillars, how will the chickadees live? The food chain needs these bugs.

It takes 4,800 caterpillars for a chickadee to raise one nest of chicks. Click To Tweet

Now take that example and imagine it happening to not just caterpillars, but to bees and beetles and butterflies. If you hurt the bottom of the food chain, you loose the animals at the top.

Imagine 4,800 of these guys (image of tent caterpillar)

Imagine 4,800 of these guys

Exotic plants aren’t bad, they just aren’t the best. They are like hamburgers. You can have one occasionally but you shouldn’t eat them everyday.

Invasive plants, are the bad guys. You can have some exotic plants but do not plant any invasive plants. Invasive plants are exotic (not native) plants that grow so well that they kill other plants. These guys are the bullies on the playground.

I’m not kidding about the killing. Recent evidence shows that Japanese honeysuckle, an invasive plant, is allelopathic – its roots give off poison into the soil to kill plants around it.  Talk about a bully! And if you live in the Ohio River Valley you can easily see this shrub killing all the plants below it.

Having invasive plants in an area destroys the habitat. These plants stop the natives from growing, thriving and spreading. They do this by growing faster, being bigger, making shade or poisoning the soil. They are not eaten by many insects, so the insect population goes down. The birds can’t find food so they move away – if they have some place to move to. The small mammals die, the predators starve.

Hint: Native plants cannot be invasive. They can be aggressive spreaders, but not invasive. The term invasive is only used with non-native plants.

How ‘Native’ should I go?

If native plants are the best plants for your backyard, then you should plant nothing but natives, right? I say, almost right.

Your backyard is your home. Your family is there, you entertain your friends there, you relax and work there. So it needs to feel like yours. To make it feel like ‘home’ you want to have stuff you like.

So, if peonies (native to Europe and Asia) remind you of your grandmother – plant some. If you have a favorite rose that your mother grew, grow it too. Many of our food plants are not native. Tomatoes are from South America, apples come from Asia and eggplant is from North Africa. Plant them. If you don’t like your backyard then you won’t want to take care of it. So like your backyard.

The trick is to plant mostly natives. Create a balance between nature and what you love.

But how many is enough? I have a personal goal. It’s not based on any science, but on what I feel works for my yard. I plant 70% native.

What that means is for every 3 non-native (exotic) plants I buy, I plant 7 native ones for my backyard. It lets me plant some ‘fun’ plants for myself. This year I purchased a Weeping Larch. It is native to Asia – but it is beautiful and I have always wanted one. It also loves wet, so it is perfect near my duck pond.

So I planted the Larch and at its base I planted native Bee Balm, Arkansas Bluestar and Yarrow.

Now there is a rule you should follow. Do not plant invasives. How do you know if a plant is invasive? Each state keeps a list and posts it. Find the list for your state on Google and before you purchase a plant, check the list. If it is on the list, leave it on the shelf.

The Ohio Department of Resources keeps a list of the Top 10 plants. If you check it out you will notice that the Purple Loosestrife mentioned earlier is on the list.

In general do not plant: butterfly bush (it’s pretty but don’t), honeysuckle, buckthorn, bradford pears, Paulowania tree, loosestrife or saltcedar. But this list is not all of them! Check before you plant.

Hint: Butterfly bush IS invasive in southwest Ohio. Many people claim it is not, but I have spent 2 years pulling seedlings from my yard. It IS invasive.

Now that you know all about the types of plants – what native plant are you going to add to your backyard? Or, what invasive plant have you planted? Tell me in the comments – I’ll go first, I have an invasive Lilac Chaste Tree on my back hill (hiding head in shame).

Paige Nugent

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