University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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WHY WILDLIFE NEED NATIVE PLANTS

Annie S. White, Graduate Research Assistant
University of Vermont
 
Researchers are learning more about the relationships between native plants and wildlife.  At the same time, home gardeners are learning more about the benefits of native plants in their landscapes and how to use them effectively.  Even professional landscapers are increasingly using native plants both for their beauty and benefits to nature.  Many forms of wildlife depend on native plants for food and shelter; non-native plants often just don’t provide these. 

A native plant is one that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region and is a part of a natural system of plants and wildlife.  The word “native” should always include a region, such as native to New England. Only plants that were established in this country prior to European settlement are generally considered native to the United States.

Our recent history of land use in the United States has been destructive to natural habitats.  Scientists estimate that humans have now altered over 95 percent of the natural landscape in the lower 48 states. Cities and suburbs now encompass 54 percent of our landscape, while various forms of agriculture comprise 41 percent.   In efforts to beautify our remaining “natural” landscapes, we have introduced thousands of non-native plant species from around the world.  Some of these have escaped into natural areas to compete with native plants—the so termed “invasives” to avoid planting and to remove from our landscapes.  Restoring native plants back into our landscapes provides habitat for native wildlife, as well as other benefits for them.
 
Entomologist Doug Tallamy introduced the gardening public to many benefits of native plants with his best-selling book, Bringing Nature Home, in 2007.  Tallamy’s research at the University of Delaware found that native landscaping increases the number of birds and caterpillars (meaning more butterflies and moths) in suburbia.  In other words, by restoring native plants to our landscapes, we also are restoring the birds, butterflies and pollinators that rely on these plants to live and reproduce.

Simply choosing a native over a non-native plant may provide numerous benefits to wildlife.  For example, Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) is a small flowering tree from China that is commonly used as an ornamental landscape tree in the U.S.   No native insects feed on the Kousa Dogwood, therefore it supports no native caterpillars, moths or butterflies.  Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is a small flowering tree native to the warmer parts of the eastern U.S.  It has a similar habit and form to the Kousa Dogwood, but supports a remarkable 117 species of moth and butterflies.

There are many options for incorporating native plants into a home landscape that are both attractive to us and provide habitat to wildlife.  In New England, consider using native coniferous trees, such as White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), to provide winter shelter for the Golden Crowned Kinglet and other birds that overwinter here.  A small grove of only a few trees of our native balsam fir (Abies balsamea) provides summer nesting and winter protection to many small and large birds.  Deciduous nut and acorn producing trees, such as White Oak (Quercus alba), provide year-round food and shelter for a diversity of insects, birds, and small mammals.

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) are examples of summer-fruiting native shrubs that are food sources for birds and other wildlife.  American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are native shrubs with winter-bearing fruit, which are important food sources for birds during the winter months. 

Hummingbirds are drawn to tubular flowers for nectar, such as Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  Native flowering perennials, such as New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) and Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), are preferred nectar and pollen sources for native pollinators.  These two perennials are important late in the season when little else may be in flower.  Other flowering perennials, such as Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) provide food sources for leaf-eating caterpillars and the subsequent butterflies.  In addition, the silky seeds of this perennial in particular provide insulation in winter nests for small birds.

You can find more information about gardening for wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation’s website (www.nwf.org) under their Outdoor Activities.   The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (www.vtfishandwildlife.com) offers a 48-page guide titled “Backyard Wildlife Habitat in Vermont.” It can be found on their website in the library under reports and documents.   For more information about what natives are best-suited for your region, visit the Plant Native website (www.plantnative.org).

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