In all honesty until reading Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy I think I was rather avoiding the subject of native plant rearing. In asking myself why? I had to admit that I associated the largely misunderstood concept of native plant selection as a choice that would entail having to “give something up.” After all, the name of my blog is Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, right? Once into Doug’s book, however, I realized how myopic that thought was, and my world expanded into a much deeper understanding of the importance of maintaining native plants in our environment. Pondering what I was reading, I came to realize that planting whatever brings you joy was not the child’s view of, “I’ll have one of these and one of these and one of those,” that (ahem) the nursery industry inadvertently seduces us into thinking is Just Fine. No. It is the wise sage who understands that the selection of one’s plants that truly brings one joy is in the context of making conscious selections that are in keeping with what was there before, creating both continuity and a healthy sustainability by honoring the thousands of years of evolutionary history that preceeded our humble and minute arrival on the scene. See? I know it’s a mouthful and I will freely admit that reading Doug’s book at first overwhelmed me, as in utterly. My first attempt to integrate what I was reading led to both my posts on butterflies, to break down some of the realizations I was having into smaller parts which I might digest and make sense of in increments. I started with the lovely butterflies, and the importance of including host plants for their eggs.
nectaring on butterfly weed
Not as easy to broach is the matter of bugs. I found myself understanding that I’d been conditioned to think that any sign in my garden of leaves being eaten was a “problem.” In my anthropocentric state of unconsciousness (oh, yes, I was) I had never really entertained the idea–as you must admit, there is scarce drawing our attention to the fact–that bugs must eat. Mostly plants.
“…most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history…our native insects will not be able to survive on alien plant species.” –Doug Tallamy
And that far from that being a problem, I was now facing the reality that this was something I not only needed to embrace, but to (shudder) possibly encourage and cultivate. Why? Anthropocentricism really does a grand job at allowing one to become blind to wee small critters that have their rightful place on planet Earth. A place so important that without them many other creatures who are dependent on them for food, would die.
larvae of the giant silk moth
But wait, you say. Isn’t pest-free a good thing? Turns out, not exactly.
It gets bigger.
Imagine the importers who have brought “pest free” plants into our country, touting their “pest freedom” as a Very Good Thing. Uh, not so fast. Apparently what comes with that “perk” is a plant that is introduced into a landscape with no natural enemies. Think kudzu or honeysuckle. Apparently plants that have taken centuries to negotiate their rightful, balanced place in their native country, can go aggressively berserk in a land that holds no such environmental contract. Ditto bugs. (I find myself wondering if those sneaky killer bees that escaped a scientist’s hold which now inhabit our Southern borders, might not have had a balancing force in their rightful home. Get it?)
So now I’ve added some new words to my vocabulary. Like “ornamental aliens.” I am unbelieveably reticent to take this kind of stock of what I have regarded as a very varied garden, but I am facing the likelihood that for as impressed as I was to think of the numbers of different plants that grow on this property I largely suspect that the majority of them are, indeed, ornamental aliens. I have a whole new respect for my hollyhocks, the native violets and even the lowly wild onion that I used to frown upon in the far back corner of the yard when they emerge each spring under the apple tree. Not anymore.
“Norway maple (Acer platanoides), an alien introduced into the ornamental trade from Europe, is now the most common shade tree in North America. As with many ornamental species, it has escaped cultivation and is rapidly displacing native trees.” –Doug Tallamy
Apparently by my introducing a healthy dose of native complexity I will do an immense good to my garden, with important ramifications. Probably very little of what was living here prior to civilized cultivation has sustained itself in the face of our arrival. And that is an unconscious violation of the contract this land had with itself. And how dare I?
I realize I’ve been sold a bill of goods. The bill of goods read, “Your yard is a blank canvas. Plant whatever you want.” So not true.
As complex as this garden may seem, it is foreign to native critters, precious bodies that are becoming extinct. What compromise can I offer? And how can I reeducate myself to appreciate the beauties of the native plants of California? To not be appalled at the first sign of Chewing? But to possibly celebrate it instead? How do I face the task of learning which bugs have natural enemies, which ones are beneficial and intrinsic to my garden and which ones are running amok, unchecked, after hitchhiking in on a ship from heaven knows where? It’s daunting, I’m the first to admit. But my moral task is clear.
wood thrush, hit particularly hard by habitat loss
Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home is a gift. It’s not the kind of gift wrapped with a pink ribbon and a tiny rose tucked into the bow. It’s the kind of gift that shakes you to your core and sets you on the path of healing. Your garden. Your planet. One plant at a time. Open it.
Love and gardening blessings,
Posted on September 8th, 2009 by Kathryn
Filed under: Book Notes