Beyond Beauty: Native Plants and the Food Web

Monarch butterfly feeding on tropical Asclepias curassavica
Monarch butterfly feeding on tropical Asclepias curassavica

The monarch butterfly is a magnificent creature whose lifecycle, over the course of 3-4 annual generations, crosses from Mexico throughout the eastern United States. Three generations a year feed and reproduce in temperate climates with the fourth generation adapted to make the long flight to the Mexican mild winter, only to return to restart the cycle the following year. These seemingly delicate creatures are the only known insects to migrate up to 2500 miles annually and return to the same exact trees in the same groves, though only their predecessors have been there before. Monarchs are just one example of the intricate networks of plant and animal relations that span our continent and the absence or scarcity of these fluttering, orange visitors and tiger-striped caterpillars is a visible manifestation of the effects of our fragmented and degraded ecosystems. Though the lifestyle we lead has greatly affected our native cohabitants, our decisions as gardeners and horticulturalists can work to remedy the situation, though complete recovery is impossible.

Native plants in the CGC rain garden (Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet', Hibiscus moscheutos, Liatris spicata 'Kobold')
Native plants in the CGC rain garden (Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’, Hibiscus moscheutos, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’)

Advocates of planting native flora appreciate endemic plants not only for their beauty and adaptability, but mainly for their deep-rooted connections to the native food web. As such, members of the Asclepias family, or milkweeds, though beautiful and long-blooming, attain more value for their key roles as monarch larvae host plants. The bee balms (Monarda sp.) emerge from their simple task of adding mid-season color to the perennial border and shine as key sources of nectar for native pollinators and hummingbirds. By choosing native plants, gardeners are returning key components to the native food webs while also beautifying their spaces. I would much rather witness a patch of Echinacea feeding my gold finches than a feeder full of seed grown in monoculture and shipped in. That trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) or native honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) speaks to the instinctual feeding cues of the ruby throated hummingbird more clearly than a plastic feeder of syrup.
These next few months at the Civic Garden Center have multiple opportunities to cooperate in this effort. This Saturday March 8, “Planting Native Prairies” (10 – noon) will begin here and adjourn to Eden Park where a new pollinator prairie is being installed. Next Saturday March 15, Wild Ones and the CGC are hosting a class on designing with native plants from ten until noon. At the Plant Sale this May 3, 4 and 5, Wild Ones will also be selling starter milkweeds and butterfly weeds to aid in repairing the fragmented monarch migration routes. Gardening has always been about making choices according to the utility and beauty of plants; the 21st century represents the time in which plants will be chosen for their relation to native plant and animal communities.

–Bennett O. Dowling, CGC Horticulturist

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