Native plants provide high-quality nourishment for birds, butterflies, bees
By Jill Draper
The Kansas City Star
Do you live in a food desert? Not for you, with your grocery stores and farmers markets, but for the bugs, birds and butterflies that surround you as part of nature’s complex and mysterious web of life.
If your house is flanked by wide areas of lawn dotted with common Asian imports — Bradford pear trees, Japanese maples, burning bush, crape myrtle, day lilies, spirea, hostas, bush honeysuckle and such (there are thousands of introduced species like these in North America) — then the answer is probably yes.
That’s bad news for wildlife. The good news is you can improve the situation by simply adding more native plants to your landscaping.
What’s so important about planting things that naturally grow here? Consider this: One spring morning Doug Tallamy set up a camera in his yard full of native plants and trees near a chickadee nest and watched the parents feed their babies 30 caterpillars in a 27-minute period.
Other scientists have conducted all-day counts in similar environments and come up with equally astonishing numbers. After their eggs hatch, one single pair of chickadees, robins, bluebirds or cardinals will feed their clutch thousands of caterpillars over a two-week span, most of these gathered from less than 200 feet — or a few city blocks — of the nest. Like babies everywhere, young birds eat soft, squishy things and cannot digest hard seeds and insects.
“These common birds require a mind-boggling number of caterpillars,” says Tallamy, an entomologist and ecology expert who traveled to Kansas City a few months ago to speak to horticulture industry leaders at the Western Nursery trade show. “But there’s not enough nature anymore, and their numbers are dwindling. Homeowners play a huge role in all this, but most of them don’t know it.”
The problem is that local songbirds, butterflies and bees — things we like to see in our neighborhoods — co-evolved with local plants. When the landscape is full of non-natives, there’s not enough high-quality nourishment to go around. Sure, some species like pigeons or starlings will eat dropped French fries from a parking lot and survive. But many beneficial forms of life are going hungry and beginning to fade away.
Leaders of a new movement called the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative hope to change that predicament. For the first time more than 30 local wildlife organizations have joined together to win a $230,000 National Wildlife Federation grant to pay for workshops, demonstration plots and educational resources to encourage residents to plant more natives. Their message is not just for homeowners, though. They say that business sites, schools, churches, condo associations and even apartment dwellers with potted plants on a balcony can join in.
A parallel effort called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge is a nationwide call to action that promotes planting sources of nectar and pollen and registering your yard at MillionPollinatorGardens.org.
Tom Schroeder, a south Kansas City homeowner, heard the call years ago. Half of his backyard is planted with trees, bushes and flowers that attract native bees and other pollinators. He says there are 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S., not including wasps. Some are black and yellow bumblebees, but others range from a brilliant metallic green to dark brown, and from one-eighth-inch to over an inch long.
“I never realized the diversity of bees that were here all along,” says Schroeder, who notes his 50-by-70-foot pollinator patch changes every month from March to November and requires little maintenance after early June. He grows perennials like anise hyssop, spiderwort and bee balm in 3-foot blocks so the bees and butterflies can forage more easily.
When he walks through his yard, it reminds him of wandering onto a prairie. “There’s so much motion and color — a vast, huge array of interest and beauty. I’m entertained by it all. I’m always surprised because something new is always showing up.”
Native bees live in solitary tunnels in bare spots of ground (the openings sometimes look like small ant hills) or in cavities like the stems of dead plants. Unlike yellow jackets, they rarely sting.
“I’ve probably spent a hundred hours with my head down in flowers with a camera, and I’ve never been bothered,” Schroeder says.
If the fate of native bees is a lesser known problem (conservation biologists believe dozens of species are going extinct every year), monarch butterflies are the poster children for troubled pollinators.
Even pristine lawn lovers are starting to pay attention. Mary Nemecek recalls growing up in the Northland with “sacred” grass.
“We didn’t walk on it after rain, frost or when it was just mowed,” she says. But not long ago her father asked about the monarchs: “If I wanted to help, what would I do?”
Eventually he volunteered a low spot along his fence line and allowed her to plant three kinds of milkweed along with asters, coreopsis, sneezeweed, liatris and coneflowers. As soon as the plants bloomed, he called her with exciting news: “I’ve got caterpillars! I’ve got butterflies!”
Nemecek, a member of the local Audubon Society and a spokeswoman for the KC Native Plant Initiative, says there’s no need to be fanatical. It’s OK to garden with beautiful non-natives, but think of them as sculptures: You need only a few.
This idea is echoed by Alan Branhagen, director of horticulture at Powell Gardens, who points out that some non-natives such as the Asian crabapple tree are actually beneficial for wildlife. But he shakes his head with disbelief that municipal arborists named the Japanese zelkova as the 2016 urban tree of the year.
“This tree is becoming a horrible invasive. And how many things feed on it? Zero! It’s like you’re planting something plastic,” he says. By contrast, some of the most helpful native trees he recommends for our area — oaks, willows, hackberries, wild plums and cherries, and roughleaf dogwood — provide food and shelter for hundreds of types of caterpillars and birds.
Branhagen is designing a bed at Loose Park as part of the native plant initiative. Other new native plantings will include 100 acres along Mill Creek in Shawnee Mission Park, various schoolyards and along Missouri state highways.
With all this activity planned, you might be wondering why your yard matters. Aren’t there plenty of places for nature to be happy somewhere else? Not so, says Nemecek, who points out that we’re losing 2.2 million acres of habitat a year in the U.S. to development or cropland.
And many of the natural areas that remain are being taken over by imported plants that have escaped from our gardens and are crowding out the natives almost like a form of biological pollution. They’re green, but they’re not supporting wildlife.
Tallamy puts forth a solution: If we reduce the nation’s 40 million acres of lawn by half and plant it with native flowers, grasses, bushes and trees, it would create a natural area larger than a dozen of our most famous parks combined, including the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Denali and Yosemite.
“We could call it the Homegrown National Park,” he suggests with a smile. But he’s not really joking.
“Our little piece of the world plays a critical role in all this,” he says. “We’re saving ourselves here. That sounds dramatic, but that’s exactly what it is. Homeowners are living with a very powerful conservation tool, if they will use it.”
How you can help
▪ Reduce or eliminate applications of weed suppressants and just mow what grows (these chemicals are not only bad for pollinators — they’re bad for kids, pets and the watershed)
▪ Reduce the size of your lawn by enlarging existing beds or creating new plantings along the edges
▪ Begin transitioning your non-native ornamentals to native species
▪ Leave some dead leaves in planted areas as mulch (beneficial things live there over winter)
▪ Don’t kill wild violets — that’s what caterpillars eat to become fritillary butterflies
▪ Keep a few small piles of dead hollow stems as homes for native bees
▪ Grow a succession of native plants for each season: spring, summer and fall
Native plants will be available at most garden centers and the following spring sales:
April 16: Gorman Discovery Center, 4750 Troost Ave. (plus freebies while supplies last)
April 16: Backyard Bird Center, 6212 N.W. Barry Road
April 23 and April 30: City Market, 20 E. Fifth St.
April 30: John Wornall House, 61st Terrace and Wornall Road
May 7: Powell Gardens, 1609 N.W. U.S. 50, outside Kingsville, Mo.
May 6-7: Overland Park Arboretum, 8909 W. 179th St.
May 13-14: Weston Bend State Park, Bee Creek Shelter, 16600 Missouri 45 N.