Why Should We Plant Natives?

The Granada Native Garden in April, 2014

The Granada Native Garden in April, 2014

For Beauty and Color                                                                                                                   For many years, Jeff’s mother felt that native California plants just wouldn’t look right in her garden in Orange County, California.  She had planted a lush non-native landscape to remind her of her Pennsylvania childhood, and she resisted incorporating even one California native.                                                                                                               Then, she discovered the Matilija poppy, and her resistance evaporated.                              Now, Jeff’s mother takes joy in the Verbena lilacina, Penstemon Margarita BOP and Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ which showplace in her garden.  She delights in the gulf fritillary and monarch butterflies that sip nectar from her flowers and lay eggs in her garden – things she had never noticed before.  Goldfinches feed the caterpillars to their young and feast on the seeds produced by her now-California garden.                                                             This is the kind of paradigm change that needs to happen in our California gardens and yards.  Small changes in many yards will make a big psychological impact.

Matilija Poppy

Matilija Poppy

A Sense of Place                                      We often travel to other places to experience the people, culture, customs and environment in other parts of the country and the world.  How boring it would be if every place were the same!                         And yet, globalization is allowing this to happen.  A traveler to France recently commented that many of the front and back yards there looked the same as those in Southern California.  Go to a Home Depot or Lowe’s in Southern California, then to a Botanic or Jardiland in France, companies with extensive market presence, and you will find them selling many of the same plants from all over the world:  hydrangea, lantana, oleander, photinia, pittosporum, and many others.                                           One writer reports that he has even found the famous drought-resistant California native, matilija poppy, growing in Cheshire, England, where the climate could not be more different.  If you spend good money to travel to Europe or anywhere else in the world, do you want to see California transplanted there?                                                                                 California became known as the land of flowers from the time the first explorers set foot here.  Others who followed were amazed by the wide range of plant types, including trees, shrubs, perennials, bulb plants, vines, succulents, grasses and non-flowering plants.  While some of these plants were similar to those of their homelands, many were new to them.                                                                                                                                   Now, if you walk around any typical California neighborhood, it will be hard to find many, if any, of these California natives growing there.  Is California becoming like any other place in the world?  Have we lost our sense of place?                                                          On a deeper level, social psychologists believe that the environment which children experience while growing up influences their environmental preferences as adults.  This sense of place forms part of their identity and forms a basis for them to consider, evaluate and appreciate subsequent places later in life.                                                                                    (Note:  Most photos can be enlarged just by clicking on them.)

The same scene, April, 2005

The same scene, April, 2005

The Granada Native Garden in December, 2002

The Granada Native Garden in December, 2002

                                                                       Environmental Compatibility                                                                                                       Native plants have evolved to live within the local climate, soil types and water supply.  Simply stated, native plants grow well in the climate in which they have evolved – better than those that evolved in Asia or South Africa.  Furthermore, native bees, butterflies, birds and other animals have co-evolved with the same native plants, so that both native plants and native animals depend on one another for food, shelter and reproductive success.  When one part of this collage disappears, the rest of it is irretrievably affected.

The Garden in June, 2012

The Garden in June, 2012

Resistance to Pests                                                                                                                      Because native plants have evolved alongside native pest organisms, they have developed resistances to the pests and are less likely to be affected by them.  The loss of native plants in the environment, and their replacement by plants that have evolved in a different environment, disrupts this natural balance between plants and animals.  Plants that have the potential to become invasive, and animals that can turn into pests, no longer have the natural controls that keep their populations in check.

A golden digger wasp – great for pest control!

A golden digger wasp – great for pest control!

As a result, humans resort to artifi- cial herbicides and pesticides which further degrade the environment, get into our bodies, and kill off both the pests and the beneficial insects as well.                                                        The re-introduction of more native plants can help restore the balance between native plants and animals.

Low Water Requirements                         In general, plants that evolved in the Caifornia environ- ment have adapted to wet winters and dry summers.  It is true that native plants need a considerable supply of water at first in order to establish them.  But for the most part, once they have been in place for two years and have doubled in size, they don’t require year- round irrigation (altho many of them are adapted to dry summers and go dormant, but a little summer water often helps them look better even in the dry months).                                         Nonetheless, homeowners who have sacrificed their thirsty lawns with an attractive, well-planned array of native California plants report that their monthly water bills are much lower, while their home landscaping remains both attractive and something to be proud of.  Moreover, the science and technology of water-wise irrigation has come a long way in the last 40-50 years.                                                                                                                  (Remember, most photos can be enlarged just by clicking on them.)

Native irises, Santa Barbara daisies, and California poppies in Cindy's garden.

Native irises, Santa Barbara daisies, and California poppies in Cindy’s garden.

Minimal Maintenance Expense                                                                                                   California native plants have evolved to thrive in the heavy, dry, clay and gravelly soils that characterize the Livermore-Amador Valley.  If properly selected and sited, native plants should flourish with a minimum of attention.  Fertilizing, spraying and pruning can be reduced or eliminated – a healthy layer of mulch provides as much slow-release fertilizer as the natives require.  Appropriate strategies help create a self-maintaining ecosystem that will attract in beneficial bugs to out-compete and devour the unwelcome ones.  Occasional pruning, shaping and dead-heading, which is routine with any landscape or garden, is all that is needed.

Lilac verbena, California lilac and Idaho fescue in Cindy's garden.

Lilac verbena, California lilac and Idaho fescue in Cindy’s garden.

Habitat Preservation                                                                                                                    Non-native plants often mean trouble for natives.  They might simply be more competitive than native species for nutrients, light, space, water or food.  At the Granada Native Garden, the first winter rains produce fast-growing non-native grasses and weeds that smother the natives which are just emerging, unless our volunteers aggressively evict the weeds as they appear.                                                                                                               If a non-native species has evolved to survive competition from other plants or from predation, it might have no competition in its new environment.  Some non-native weeds produce chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants in the same vicinity.  The root systems of some species might enable them to reach water unavailable to the surrounding natives, thus crowding out the natives.  Others are better able to resist fire and to recover after frequent, intense fires.  The invasive species eventually grows larger and denser as it adapts to its new location, thus displacing the natives.                                                                    Furthermore, the loss of native species results in the decline of native birds and insects that have evolved to rely on these plants.  It is happening all over the world.

Hummingbird fuchsia greets visitors in Kerry's garden.

Hummingbird fuchsia greets visitors in Kerry’s garden.

Attracting Wildlife                                                                                                                         Birds and pollinators are essentials, not luxuries.  Birds provide natural pest control, watershed protection and re-forestation services.  And the Audubon Society says that the best way to attract birds is to plant natives.

A gulf fritillary butterfly in Jim's garden.

A gulf fritillary butterfly in Jim’s garden.

Insect pollinators guarantee our supply of fruits, nuts and vegeta- bles.  Without insect pollinators, we would have to resort to artificial, tedious and expensive means of pollination.                                                   But wildlife is also important to humans on a different level.  As Raymond Dasmann has explained:  “Anyone who has not been blind to the world around him knows that life for people can be enriched by the presence of wild creatures in man’s environment.  The enjoyment of watching wild animals in wild places adds a savor to life, even if it is but a casual encounter.  The knowledge that wild nature still exists adds a dimension of freedom to an otherwise restricted life – leaves open the possibility for escape from the narrow confinements of civilization.  If we create in California a world with no space left for wild animals, it will prove to be a world with little space for human freedom.”  (Raymond F. Dasmann, The Destruction of California, page 58)

A mama California quail and her children, out for a  stroll.

A mama California quail and her children, out for a stroll.

Historical Uses of Native Plants                                                                                                  Susan and Andy were thinking about replacing their water-thirsty landscape with something else to save water and make it more California-like.  But what?                                      One Sunday morning, they happened to take advantage of a program at Sycamore Grove Park, and native California plants was the topic.  The ranger explained how, for example, acorns from native oaks were a major food staple for the Native Americans, and how the acorns were processed to make them edible.  They were fascinated when the ranger explained how the comely fruits of the California buckeye could be used to sedate fish and make them easy to catch.  Acres of purple needlegrass produced an enormous amount of edible seeds.  Large clumps of deergrass were harvested to make baskets of many shapes, sizes and uses.  Native edible elderberries also had many medicinal uses, and even the dried stems of the elderberry bush were fashioned into flutes.  It gradually dawned on Susan and Andy that a landscape full of native California plants would be the perfect addition to their California home!                                                                                          Knowing something about the natural history of plants – that is, the role they play in the environment – definitely contributes to our enjoyment of native plants and helps us to feel as part of nature, not apart from it.  The original inhabitants of California had no supermarkets, drugstores and hospitals, hardware stores, department stores and factories to supply their needs.  Everything they needed was obtained, or created by them, from the plants and animals around them – food, clothing, medicines, shelter, tools and equipment, even toys and musical instruments.  And don’t forget how important native plants are to native birds, insects and mammals.                                                                                                 “The first European visitors to California found a park-like landscape that was the result of a long history of land management.  Indigenous people practiced tilling, sowing, weeding, pruning, burning and selective harvesting to manage plant populations and shape their natural environments.  They gathered wild plants for food, medicine, basketry, clothing and other uses.”  (Marjorie G. Schmidt & Katherine L. Greenberg, Growing California Native Plants, 2nd ed., pp. 3-4)

A buckeye fruit (upper left) and its nut (below)

A buckeye fruit (upper left) and its nut (below)

Almost everything growing at the Granada Native Garden was useful to the indigenous people in one way or another.  Many of the plant identification markers at the Granada Native Garden include notes about the historical uses of native plants.  Check them out!

Quote du Jour                                          “Just because it will grow in your garden, doesn’t mean you should plant it.”                                 Anonymous

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7 thoughts on “Why Should We Plant Natives?

  1. I learned so much just from reading this one article. Thank you for all the research you did to write this! One of your best articles yet.

    • You are welcome. I appreciate getting feedback; you are apparently the first reader from another continent!
      I hope you will find our previous, archived articles similarly interesting and informative.
      ~ Jim

  2. Can someone please contact me about using high resolution photos from your site for a demonstration garden exhibit at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center in Oakland?

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