Planting natives supports critters, bugs, and the food chain

The 411 on native plants

What are native plants, and what’s the fuss? 

Simply put, say Chesapeake Master Gardeners, native plants—those indigenous to a certain area—are better at supporting local wildlife and greater diversity than plants that are native to other parts of the world. Say you’re a hummingbird and you need to bulk up to make your annual overwintering migration. Your departure will be from Chesapeake, and your destination is Mexico. 

Over millennia, your system has evolved so that certain foods are key to your diet. Certain, but  not all berries and their juices and flesh, for example, are high in fat that will help you during the long flight ahead. So in essence, plants themselves have coevolved to grow in communities such that the timing of their emergences, growth, flowering, fruiting, and senescence are all part of a delicate balance, in tune with the animals that interact with them. You, the hummingbird, might rush to feed on honeysuckle, but an exotic like bird of paradise would stump you completely and ultimately be of no use. And, certain insects—called specialists—can only feed on one or two genera of plants. If the landscape is missing these native plants, then the insects and often birds cannot survive or complete their life cycles (think Monarch butterflies and milkweed). 

Native plant communities are better at creating stable and complex food webs than any assemblage of exotic plants. And stable food webs lead to greater biodiversity and native plant communities are better at providing ecosystem functions. CMGV.org


This article originally appeared in the Best of Virginia 2024 issue.

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