Going Native: Landscape As If “Life” Depended On It

by Dale Goodner

The answers were great: Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Goldenrod, Purple Cone Flower, Joe-Pie Weed, Cup Plant, etc. My wife, Mary, and I had been doing a program for gardeners at the Algoma library. The question was: “Name one of the very best plants you could place in your landscape to promote butterflies.” They’d named excellent native plants that feed insects.

My suggestion surprised many. “What about oak.” There are many valuable species of oaks. The incredibly productive native oaks host several hundred species of lepidopteran larvae (butterflies and moths), which feed on their foliage. Not only does this help sustain those populations, it also provides a huge boost to native nesting birds, which depend on these larvae to feed their developing (and very hungry) nestlings.

To illustrate the importance of this, consider just one example. A pair of chickadees can make more than 500 foraging forays per day to gather larvae to feed their clutch of maybe half a dozen hatchlings. In a couple weeks, that can be more than 9,000 trips. Considering they only forage in about a 50-meter radius, the problem becomes painfully clear. With the gradual erosion of varied and indigenous plants, our favorite bird songs are being silenced.

Our native birds depend on native vegetation that hosts native butterflies and moths. But urban landscapes today are increasingly dominated by exotic plants. This is a huge and growing problem. Trouble is, our native critters are uniquely un-adapted to exotic plants. To ward off foraging insects, plants resort to chemical warfare. Insects generally are specialists, feeding on only a few species to which they are adapted.

For example: Norway Maple is a typical Eurasian tree that is commonly used in landscapes, and was introduced to America (from England) in 1756. It is thought of as desirable because it hosts almost no insects at all. But because its spotless foliage feeds no insects, it has little value to birds. You may as well plant plastic trees. It produces lonely, lifeless, lackluster landscapes.

This winter, plan for spring plantings. For the sake of local birds, such as our chickadees, native vegetation should dominate the plan. There are many beautiful indigenous trees that would bring life back into both urban and home environments: Oak, Wild Black Cherry, Birch, Aspen, Maple, Elm, Pine, Hickory, to name a few.

Indigenous species are gradually becoming more common in the landscape business. But be careful, as a customer looking for natives, you need to be specific. Order plants with only two names – just a genus and species. Period. For example, some of the best trees include Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Basswood (Tilia Americana) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra).

Insects are even important in winter. In spite of freezing temperatures, enjoy the birds that are busy finding dormant insects, insect eggs and larvae hidden in bark crevices.

In the words of Dr. Douglas Tallamy: “I cannot overemphasize how important insect herbivores are to the health of all terrestrial ecosystems. Worldwide, 37 percent of animal species are herbivorous insects. These species are collectively very good at converting plant tissue of all types to insect tissue, and as a consequence they also excel at providing food – in the form of themselves – for other species. In fact, a large percentage of the world’s fauna depends entirely on insects to access the energy stored in plants.”

Dr. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home is an excellent guide to making our home landscapes more friendly to native birds and other interesting critters, including ourselves.


“Going Native” is an occasional series from the Door County Chapter of Wild Ones. Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes promotes environmentally sound practices to encourage biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. The Door County chapter of Wild Ones aims to share knowledge and experience in natural landscaping by means of nature walks, yard visits and lectures. For more information visit


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