Science Says

Native Plants are a Moral Choice

Mary Gray7 comments909 views
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Nebraska Prairie

Guest Rant by Benjamin Vogt

It’s late July and I’ve finally seen my first monarch butterfly, but only after the Liatris ligulistylis started blooming. This is a very, very late start. In 2010 I raised 200 from egg to wing, then in 2011 a solid 150, last year only 25. This year I found 5 eggs.

I slip quietly behind some tall coreopsis, hoping the monarch won’t see or sense me. But they do, they always do. It lifts off to fly circles above me for much longer than I have the patience to wait. It’s an incredible butterfly, isn’t it? The quintessential summer insect. But it’s not just monarchs I’ve seen less of these last years – it’s all kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and wasps. Pollinating insects which provide 1 in 3 bites of food – even China has resorted to hand-pollinating large crops due to a lack of insects.

Have you seen this lack, this absence? It’s a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Folks speculate on the cause – pesticides, habitat loss, weather extremes. What’s the magic bullet? Suburban sprawl. GMO agricultural fields producing toxic pollen and taking more pesticide sprays. Tar sands and mountain top removal coal mining. Plowing up the last remaining prairies at a rate exceeding the years just prior to the Dust Bowl – in the last 5 years the size of Indiana has been converted as publicly-subsidized crop insurance guarantees a farmer’s income, even if they plow up marshes and highly erodible lands.

As gardeners we have first hand knowledge of environmental change – birds, butterflies, soil, rain. We are also the first and last line of defense. How we garden is how we see the world. Gardening is an ethical act, like shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, et cetera. We make the choices as gardeners, and we are powerful — there are tens of millions of us in North America. Gardening has become much more than an aesthetic hobby – it’s now also a protest (you front lawn converters know what I mean!).

Monarchs need milkweed – a genus that has over 100 species in the U.S. alone. A native plant. A host plant. Why would you not plant milkweed given the absence of monarchs you see? Why would you not connect the dots to other lives and plants, other hosts for skippers, and swallowtails, and fritillaries? It’s estimated that 3,000 species of flora and fauna vanish every year, due in large part to human action.

So will you follow me one step further? Choosing native plants may be a moral choice. Asking for them in nurseries is asking for change, for restoration, for healing. Native plants can connect us to our home ground in ways a non native might not be able to. Native plants help us learn about local ecology, attracting beneficial bugs, fixing soil, feeding birds – all adapted, all co-evolved with the nectar and the seeds and the taste of leaves over tens of thousands of years. In the Plains what was here before Europeans erased it? Is it ok that those species are no longer here? The prairie once acted like the Amazon rainforest – huge lungs that cleaned the hemisphere’s air and provided a wealth of life that created backup redundancies. In a monoculture of corn, soybeans, hosta, or daylily (all new norms we seem to accept as if they always existed), one pest or disease can wipe everything away in a moment – there is no redundancy, and less value to native wildlife. Nature thrives on diversity, and so do we, physically and psychologically. That’s what makes America so unique. If we plant the same things from city to city, state to state, country to country, haven’t we McDonaldized the world? What do local wildlife think about that?

I tell you honestly, I ache for the monarch butterfly. I feel that absence in my garden like I feel the absence of deceased family and friends. My heart feels weak, my body shudders. I will gather as much milkweed seed as I can this fall from my Nebraska garden – indeed as much liatris, coneflower, bluestem, sideoats grama, culver’s root, mountain mint, aster, goldenrod, and sunflower as I can. I’ll wintersow them in pots and plant out the seedlings next summer. I’ll hope, but what’s more, I’ll take a stand and believe I can make a difference – it’s time to bring ourselves back to the native landscape, to connect to our home ground, to heal, and ultimately to connect more deeply to  ourselves and each other as we garden for all of us.

Benjamin Vogt blogs at Deep Middle.   Click here to read more from Benjamin on this subject.

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Garden Rant
on September 20, 2013 at 7:19 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, It’s the Plants, Darling.

7 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Benjamin–I feel we are voices crying in the wilderness. (See my book Design Your Natural Midwest Garden and my blog, http://www.naturalmidwestgarden.com). I don’t, however, think scolding and scaring is the best way to win converts. Converting gardeners, who already have gardens filled with exotic plants, is not easy and blending natives with their existing gardens is a start. One of my programs that I give is entitled “If you aren’t ready to go all the way…” I’m assuming that once one starts planting native plants, their beauty and low upkeep will win out over exotics. One doesn’t need a prairie in order to have a prairie garden–my lot is only 50′ x 124′ and my garden beds are planted exclusively with Midwest native plants. (It was featured in Better Homes & Gardens several years ago.)

  2. When I was a kid, behind my house there was a big patch of undeveloped land, including a few small fields full of milkweed. The town bought it as conservation land. Good, you are thinking. But they mow the meadow a few times a year and the milkweed is no more.

  3. When I moved to Princeton, NJ, a field along a popular canal towpath was being mowed every week or two by state parks. I noticed rosettes of cutleaf coneflower surviving the mowing but unable to bloom, and was able to talk the parks ranger into mowing once a year instead. Less work, and a great explosion of native wildflowers and grasses–JoePyeWeed, tall meadow rue, milkweed, ironweed, deertongue grass, even species I’d never encountered before, like figwort. They mowed a nature trail that winds through this field. This is a floodplain field, so may be more resilient, but your milkweed may still be surviving in your field, ready to come back with a change in mowing regime.

  4. Since Mr. Vogt uses the Monarch butterfly to make his case for native plants, let’s start there. Here in California the Monarch overwinters in non-native eucalyptus trees which are being rapidly eradicated on our public lands in response to the demands of native plant advocates. There is no historical evidence of a Monarch migration in California prior to the planting of tall non-native trees by Europeans in the 19th century.

  5. Mary–So, do those monarchs use the trees as a host plant? I suppose I could have used any number of insect, but this one is certainly a poster child. I don’t see monarchs evolving to use aster or coneflower as a host plant — the rush of climate change is outpacing evolution, wouldn’t you say? If we are losing 3,000 species a year, as E.O. Wilson suggests, what are the moral implications of that? Should we just have the cavalier attitude that what doesn’t adjust just wasn’t meant to exist, as I’m taking you mean? Where will monarchs go in Mexico when cold winter rains strike as a result of climate change, freezing them to death? Even if you planted oaks you’d still have the changing weather, right?

  6. The Monarch does not lay its eggs on the eucalyptus in California, i.e., it is not a host plant. However, it is one of the few sources of winter nectar and pollen that is needed by the Monarch when it emerges from diapause in late winter. Most native plants in California are dormant at that time. The eucalyptus is therefore very important to the survival of the Monarch migration in California.

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