Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard, but they have other attributes that appeal to me and might appeal to you, too. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

Related Posts

Resources

Breast Cancer Awareness – Why I Wear a Pink Ribbon

Finding out if you have breast cancer is the first step in surviving it.

Wearing a pink ribbon is a non-confrontational way of putting a face on breast cancer and inviting the people you encounter to engage you in conversation.

Although anytime is a good time help people learn about breast cancer, Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings it to the attention of the general public potentially giving you a wider audience for sharing information, support, or assistance. The way you interact with people will affect how willing they are to receive what you have to offer.

For instance, how would you feel if you were walking down the street on your way to run an errand during your lunch break and I stopped you and asked you if you had mammogram recently? What if I turned to you in the grocery market checkout line and began reciting breast cancer statistics? What would you do if we were sitting next to each other waiting for a meeting to begin and I introduced myself as a breast cancer survivor and began describing my chemotherapy treatment?

Chances are you would feel offended, threatened, annoyed or some other emotion and would try to get away from me as soon as possible.

Now, imagine you see me adorned with a pink ribbon minding my own business as I walk down the street, stand in the checkout line, or sit waiting for a meeting. Of course, you might not notice my pink ribbon or you could just ignore it and me. But then again, maybe you will see the pink ribbon and it will spark a thought.

Perhaps it jogs your memory and you scrounge around your purse looking for the mammogram slip you doctor gave several months ago. After pulling out the crumpled form along with your cell phone, you call to make a mammogram appointment. Possibly, you are curious and open a dialogue with me by asking me if I am a breast cancer survivor or why I am wearing a pink ribbon (this has happened to me, although not in the grocery market). Maybe a friend who is undergoing breast cancer treatment comes to mind so you sneak out of the meeting and call her volunteering to drop off dinner tomorrow.

Do you see what I mean?

Why I Wear a Pink Ribbon in October

Wearing a pink ribbon during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal for me. I am a breast cancer survivor. It is part of who I am, now.

Each morning during October, I attach a pink ribbon to whatever I am wearing for several reasons.

One is that I want to remind the people who see me that breast cancer affects real people devastating our lives and too often killing us. It could be you or someone you love. Breast cancer mostly affects women, but a small number of men get breast cancer, too.

Another reason is that by wearing a pink ribbon, I am inviting you to engage in a conversation with me at a level that feels comfortable to you, but only if you choose to talk with me. It is your choice.

Woman Wearing a Pink T-Shirt and Ribbon Shouting into a Megaphone
Photo Credit – iStock/RyanKing999

As odd as this may sound, wearing a pink ribbon also acts as a sort of safety mechanism for me. It cautions me that even though I might feel like ranting and raving about toxins in the environment, complacency about cancer in our society, or government agencies failing to protect our health, I realize that throwing a fit is not going to encourage you or anyone else to talk with me about breast cancer.

A Mammogram Saved My Life

Saying “A mammogram saved my life.” is an overly dramatic and not completely correct statement but it does grab your attention.

My breast cancer tumor was buried against my chest wall and was not detectable to the touch. A mammogram first alerted my doctor and then me that I might have breast cancer. The ultrasound that followed the mammogram indicated that I likely had invasive breast cancer and the biopsy confirmed it.

I have shared parts of my breast cancer journey in other posts like Life after Cancer – Volunteering, New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 – Hit the Reset Button, and Life after Cancer – Gardening so I will not repeat myself here. I am grateful to be alive every single day.

Tragically, not everyone who has a mammogram and later receives the dreaded diagnosis “You have breast cancer.” will make it through treatment and live. My heart is full of grief for these women and men and the people who love them.

Having a mammogram could help you or someone you love to survive breast cancer so I urge you to get regular mammograms.

Pink Merchandise Exploitation

Pink everything is everywhere during October.

Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness
Photo Credit – Dreamstime/Msc1974

Companies and even nonprofit organizations cash in on pink and beribboned merchandise. Some of the products you will see for sale include wristbands, t-shirts, key chains, lingerie, coffee mugs, jewelry, tote bags, Christmas tree ornaments, sunglasses, hats, shoes, pens, candy, stickers, bottled water, party decorations, posters, tools, and cosmetics.

Although some companies contribute a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research or support services for women and men undergoing treatment, many do not.

I know that the plethora of pink ribbons and other pink items are upsetting for some women and men for a variety of reasons. Moreover, the sheer volume of stuff available ensures that you will run across items that may offend you. For instance, I cannot decide which is worse the t-shirt with the statement “Save Second Base” or the button that says, “I have chemo brain. What’s your excuse?”

However, I admit that I have purchased pink Breast Cancer Awareness gear over the years.

In 2012 before my breast cancer diagnosis, on a whim, I bought an Oakland Raiders baseball cap during the NFL’s annual “Crucial Catch” breast cancer awareness campaign.

As a newly minted breast cancer survivor in 2016 needing tennis shoes, I selected a black pair with pink accents and a tiny pink ribbon on the heel.

Before October rolled around in 2017, I carefully selected two pink ribbon brooches that I could see myself alternately wearing for 31 days a year for years to come. I also bought a sheet of pink ribbon stickers so I could attach one to the letter I was writing to Scott Pruitt, who was the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time.

Last October, I attended a Raiders game in Oakland with my sister and my niece. I was wearing a pink ribbon pin and my pink Raiders baseball hat. The Raiders team colors are black and silver so when you are walking around among thousands of people wearing a pink hat you really stand out. Maybe no one noticed, but maybe someone did.

If even one woman or one man seeing a pink ribbon worn by anyone or on anything survive breast cancer because she or he first got a mammogram and then treatment, I am willing to wear a pink ribbon every October forever.

Featured Image at Top: Breast Cancer Awareness Pink Ribbon and Pink Speech Bubbles – Photo Credit Shutterstock/hidesy

Related Posts

Resources

  • Cancer Facts & Figures 2018 – American Cancer Society (From this webpage you can download a report containing data about all cancers including breast cancer.)
  • MammographySavesLives – The American College of Radiology (This website provides a broad range of information including survivor stories and a tool for finding mammogram facilities in your area.)
  • Mammography – Susan G. Komen (This webpage has good information but the video is antiquated.)
  • My First Mammogram Dispelled Every Myth About the Procedure – Borgess Medical Center (This is a video of Heather McGregor getting her first mammogram. Of course, there is variation in equipment and facilities, but this video will give you a good idea of what a mammogram is like. In my experience, the technician does not share images during the exam.)
  • National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (This webpage provides information about free and low-cost screenings in the United States.)