Voice of the Land


Is Focus on Esthetics Destroying Local Biodiversity?

Orange and black tussock moth caterpillars.

Orange and black warns predators not to mess with milkweed tussock moth caterpillars.

In reading a recent issue of Colorado Gardener, I was directed to Doug Tallamy’s Plant Natives 2015 presentation on YouTube, and I agree with Jane Shellenberger, of Gardener Editor, it is stunning.

The question Jane was addressing is pressing on our minds, too; How do we work with nature, instead of against her? What does that mean? Especially if we live in the cities and suburbs?

Entomology and wildlife ecology professor Doug Tallamy has a lot of good ideas for change. He is the science guy you love to listen to. He beautifully explains why we need diversity in our home gardens, why lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers from around the world don’t support the bugs, bees and birds that live here, and how we can start to change it.

The stunning part are his pictures [at 23:33, Wow! I have never seen such a fabulous caterpillar]. But the information was surprising to me. I thought those caterpillars would eat anything. But actually, he shows us how each bird feeds only a specific caterpillar to their young. And how each caterpillar eats only from a specific plant. And the plants they eat are only the ones that grow natively, not ones brought in from somewhere else. This specificity is surprising, but that’s actually how it works. (Like the Monarch, who specializes in milkweed.) Specialization in the natural world, especially food specialization, is the rule rather than the exception.

We need to recognize that lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers from around the world cover millions of acres where native plants once thrived. Most of these “alien” plants provide little food for the native insects, spiders, birds, etc and their populations have declined. Maybe no-bugs and no “critters” is what you are after in city living. But our cities cover much of our land and what’s not covered in cities is farmland, which often carries a heavy pesticide and bt toxin burden. We have 50% fewer birds today compared to 40 years ago. 230 species of birds that rely on insects are at risk of extinction. Where should life happen? Think of all of these animals, from the insects to the bees, to the coyotes, to the birds we love to see, as part of our ecological bank account. They need a place to live. So we need to create habitat for them.

Blooming Creeping Mahonia

Rocky Mountains native Creeping Mahonia is a low spreading ground cover blooming with yellow flowers followed by blue-black fruit clusters.

Ornamental horticulture’s exclusive focus on esthetics without regard for the ecosystem is destroying local biodiversity.

If you listen to Doug’s talk, it sounds like he is going after our lawns, but really he is opening another door to creativity. He says keep your lawn in the areas where you want to walk, play, hangout. And use the rest like islands and inlets into a native forest of trees, shrubs, perennial ground covers and flowers. Being from Tennessee, he describes his native combinations of specializations between plants, birds, and caterpillars that rely on each other around the Tennessee region.

Our job is to think of our local birds and wildlife and about what specializations and habitat needs they have. If you love birds, remember. They feed caterpillars to their young. so don’t poison the caterpillars! And the plants in your yard do matter. Think of them like bird-feeders. Local plants support 5 times the caterpillars to the imported ornamental and invasive species. Imported ornamentals are like statues that don’t support life. Some are good, but you don’t want a whole yard of them.

A western native sand cherry, Pawnee Buttes is a low growing, groundcover shrub with a profusion of fragrant white flowers in early spring and showy mahogany-red foliage in the fall. Drought resistant/drought tolerant.

A western native sand cherry, Pawnee Buttes is a low growing, groundcover shrub with a profusion of fragrant white flowers in early spring and showy mahogany-red foliage in the fall. Drought resistant/drought tolerant.

For our Colorado landscape we have lots of resources* to help us build a beautiful, yet native ecosystems in our yards. If we embrace finding and planting our native species we’ll have more interesting, happier and less needy gardens and create habitat and food sources for our native wildlife. The idea is rebuilding a food web, so sort out which of the natives are most productive for your eco-system and add them to your own backyard.

Our landscapes need to be more than just pretty. We need to share our neighborhoods with wildlife; Create corridors connecting natural areas. Reduce the area now in lawn. Begin the transition from alien ornamentals to native ornamentals.

Doug calls on us to raise the bar; Support life, Sequester carbon, Support pollinators, Manage water.

(He also suggests that dandelions are the bees first food of the season. Let them bloom.)

 A world without insects is a world without biological diversity. And a world without biological diversity is a world without humans. (E.O. Williams)

*Doug Tallamy; www.BringingNatureHome.net, Colorado Native Plant Society, The Xerces Society www.xerces.org, Plant talk Colorado (Colorado State Edu), Center for ReSource Conservation, findnativeplants.com/southwest/colorado-native-plants/, birdzilla.com

Tall Western Sage closeup photo

A true Colorado native shrub. Small, silvery leaves are very fragrant. Yellowish-white flowers appear in mid to late summer.




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