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.

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The Hidden Life of Trees – Book Review

You will discover wonders great and small in a forest.

Surely, a book entitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate would draw the interest of anyone who admires trees.

Trees have always fascinated me. I was a tree hugger (literally) long before I became an environmentalist. I observe trees and wonder about things like what it is like to live in the same spot for hundreds of years or to have another tree fall on you during a storm and stay there.

I came across The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben while browsing the Volumes of Pleasure book table during a break at the Central Coast Bioneers conference last November. The title was intriguing. After flipping to the table of contents and scanning the names of the chapters, I smiled and bought the book.

Book Review

Reading The Hidden Life of Trees will give you an opportunity to get to know trees and forests up close and personal. Wohlleben delivers his observations comingled with science facts in easy to read chunks of 12 pages or less over the course of 36 chapters.

Prepare yourself to be entertained and informed, maybe even amazed by some of the things you will read about in this book. I was.

The Hidden Life of Trees Book Cover

For instance, do you know that when a predator starts nibbling on its leaves some trees will begin pumping toxins into their leaves to discourage the nibbler? In addition, the tree under assault will release a scent to warn nearby trees of the danger so they, too, can pump toxins into their own leaves.

Are you aware that fungal networks connect trees to other trees allowing them to share nutrients and information or that they perform other services like filtering out heavy metals in the soil and protecting trees against bacterial attacks? In return, the fungi receive food from the trees in the form of sugar and carbohydrates.

Have you ever considered the challenges facing trees planted in parks and next to streets? These trees are not only separated from their family members, their roots must navigate around concrete, pipes, and other obstructions, and they are constantly in danger of having their limbs cut off.

Wohlleben reinforces the interconnectedness of nature and the importance of biodiversity throughout the book and gives a realistic view of what actually occurs in a forest.

“The forest ecosystem is held in a delicate balance. Every being has its niche and its function, which contribute to the well-being of all. Nature is often described like that, or something along those lines; however, that is, unfortunately, false.”

Did you see that coming?

“For out there under the trees, the law of the jungle rules. Every species wants to survive, and each takes from the others what it needs. All are basically ruthless, and the only reason everything doesn’t collapse is because there are safeguards against those who demand more than their due. And one final limitation is an organism’s own genetics: an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.”

Hmm, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from trees.

The Bottom Line

Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who has written several books about trees. To my knowledge, The Hidden Life of Trees is the first one translated into English making it accessible to millions of people who cannot read in German, including me.

Wohlleben writes in a lyrical and engaging way. As you are reading the book, you can imagine yourself strolling with him through the forest conversing about tree parents and their children or sitting on a tree stump talking about how trees act as carbon dioxide vacuums.

One thing that you will notice as you are reading The Hidden Life of Trees is that Wohlleben writes about trees as beings with thoughts and feelings. Attributing human characteristics to non-humans is called anthropomorphism. A familiar example is treating your pet like a family member.

Apparently, some people believe that anthropomorphizing plants and animals detracts from science or maybe they just think it is silly. To me, that is a shortsighted view.

I believe that Wohlleben’s use of anthropomorphic terms to describe trees and other forest denizens probably contributed to the book becoming a best seller. By writing a book that is easy for people to relate to and fun to read, he has made learning about trees and forests appealing to a wide audience.

Perhaps after being introduced to trees in The Hidden Life of Trees, you and other readers will be inclined to do some further reading or research about trees, get to know trees in your own community, or take action to protect an old growth forest at risk of destruction. Regardless, you will come away having gained knowledge and at least one interesting tidbit to share with your friends.

Reading The Hidden Life of Trees is a delightful and informative experience you do not want to miss.

Featured Image at Top: Beech Tree Forest Canopy in Germany during the Summer – Photo Credit Shutterstock/ Alexandra Theile

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