I hope you’ll enjoy my latest article from the newspaper. If you already read it, or don’t want o read it, that’s okay. I write for my own enjoyment, and some people tell me they enjoy me writings. 🙂
The Circle of Life
Whenever I see the butterflies, bees, hummers, and other pollinators flitting about in my garden from spring until fall, I just want to burst out in a chorus of The Circle of Life, theme song from The Lion King movie. Indeed, there is a circle of life going on right there in my yard.
Many gardeners seek to have beautiful butterflies and hummers flitting about in their flower gardens. But in order to assure that will happen, there are some things you must keep in mind. Butterflies have a cycle which includes the adult butterfly, the egg, the larvae (caterpillars), and the chrysalis. If you provide an abundance of nectar plants in your landscape, you’ll get butterflies, at least for the first year or two. But if you don’t go the extra mile in providing host plants on which the butterflies lay their eggs, your population may decrease over time. The nectar plant sustains the adult, but the caterpillars need a totally different plant with leaves they can eat. And then there’s the chrysallis, which needs a safe place to hang for the winter, until the adult butterfly emerges in the spring. If we remove all the brown plant stems and rake all the leaves, we may be destroying the chrysalis that will become next year’s butterflies.
The oak tree is vital to the survival of many butterflies, as it supports more than 500 species of native insects. Yes, the leaves may start to look somewhat ragged after a horde of caterpillars munch on them, but the tree doesn’t suffer so long as no more than 30% of the leaves are eaten. We just have to learn to embrace the ragged leaves as a natural part of the insect life cycle. Other native trees and shrubs are also valuable as host plants. So when planning your landscape, be sure to leave the oaks, add some natives such as sassafras, pawpaw, buttonbush, willows, wild cherry, New Jersey tea, blueberry, and viburnums.
Hummers have their own circle of life that involves migration. We provide nectar plants and shelter for them on their journeys to and from their winter/summer breeding grounds. Without the plants they need to build up body fat, they won’t survive their long migration.
Bees need nectar plants too, but also rely on the protein rich pollen to feed to their young. Native mason bees and bumblebees are some of our most reliable pollinators. These critters also need nesting sites, which might be a hole in the undisturbed ground, or inside the hollow stems of plants that are left standing for the winter. Some, like the leaf cutter bees, will use leaves from native plants to pack inside their nesting site. Once again, you’ll have to learn to tolerate a less pristine yard.
Notice the number of birds visiting your feeders as spring approaches. The birds come for the food, but hang around if nesting places, fresh water, and shelter are available. Most of our songbirds are seed and berry eaters, but 90% of them feed their babies insects. By enticing birds to your yard, you are assuring that the caterpillar population will be kept under control. If there are too many caterpillars, they can overgraze on the leaves and weaken the plants. But with birds in the yard, a significant number of insects will become bird food. Once again, there’s a circle that includes insects, native plants, and birds.
Since our birds and insects have coevolved over thousands of years with our native plants, they can tolerate the chemical defenses put out by the natives. They cannot do this with nonnatives, so they bypass those plants.. Putting in nonnatives will certainly assure that we have pristine plants, but it will also assure that we will have fewer of the beautiful pollinators and birds we enjoy in our yards. The animals simply cannot get the nutrition they need from non natives. Douglas Tallamy, in his book Bringing Nature Home, stated that ‘A plant without damage is a plant that hasn’t done its job”.
Chickadees are one of the most delightful birds in the home landscape. A study done by the
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center found that chickadees will bypass non native trees and shrubs such as gingko and crape myrtle within a few hundred yards of their nests, and travel up to a city block away to find insects on a native tree. Some non native species do support insects, but not the kind of insects our native birds prefer.
Perhaps the greatest impact on animal habitats is the change from mostly native to mostly non native species in our landscapes. About 80% of suburbia is landscaped with plants from Asia, according to Dr. Tallamy. “When nonnative plants replace natives, entire food webs are disrupted by the loss of specialized plant-eating insects-the most important food for animals ranging from other insects and spiders to reptiles and amphibians to mammals and birds.”
To sum it up, if you want to enjoy the critters in your yard, you have to plant with them in mind. Do some research before you plant a tree or shrub. Ask your landscaper to start replacing nonnative plants with natives. Make sure your flowering plants from the nursery are free of herbicides and pesticides. If the label doesn’t say so, then ask. If the nurseryman doesn’t know if his plants have been treated, then don’t buy them. When you take home a plant that has been treated with pesticides, the insects that feed on the leaves will be killed. A pesticide doesn’t discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ insects.
Enjoy your yard, embrace the chewed up leaves, and join me in a chorus of The Circle of Life. Your singing can’t possibly scare away more critters than mine!
To learn more about the importance of native plants in our environment, join us at the next meeting of the West Georgia Chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society on Tuesday, February 17 at the ag center. The meet and greet and plant sale will be at 6:30, with the program at 7:00. Jim Ozier will present a program on the Bald Eagle. Guests are welcome. Membership applications will be available. Check out the GNPS website at www.gnps.org and the West Georgia Chapter at www.wgawildflowers.org for more information about the organizations.