Thursday, July 12, 2012

Native plants... their place and purpose in our gardens

I met today's guest blogger at the first Pennwriter's meeting I attended at the Eat 'n Park in Robinson Township, PA several months ago. In addition to being a writer, Doris Dumrauf is an award-winning nature photographer and speaker. She speaks to civic groups about backyard habitats for birds and insects. Her blog, Birds with Personality, covers birding and gardening topics. 

Cedar waxwing eating serviceberry

Gardens are works in progress. Years ago, we landscaped our front yard with the usual suspects: Bradford pears, spireas, privet hedges, burning bushes, and azaleas. In other words, our yard looked just like every other yard. 

Then, we became interested in native plants. We removed the ugly pear tree and planted an Eastern redbud instead. Its pink flowers not only brighten up our entire street, but they are also one of the earliest blooms in the spring and attract many insects. These insects, in turn, provide pollination. But insects serve another purpose: they feed birds when they need it most: during the time when they are nesting and feeding their young.

Spicebush swallowtail larva eating spicebush leaf
Insects are the little things that drive the world and are a very important part of the natural food chain. The lawns that Americans love so much do not support wildlife at all. In an effort to have a “perfect” lawn, homeowners use more pesticides per acre than agriculture. These pesticides are not only deadly to birds, other wildlife, and beneficial insects, they also pose health risks for humans and their pets. There is a better way to garden.

When we erected a storage shed in our backyard we had to find a purpose for an about 13x13 feet corner on which nothing grew, except rocks. We brought in topsoil and I planted a wildflower seed packet because I wanted a butterfly garden. A year later, I had the result I had envisioned. We were hooked. We made ourselves knowledgeable about native plants and started another native garden. Every year we add new plants to it and observe more and more insect varieties as time goes by. Two kinds of milkweed – common milkweed and butterfly weed – attract Monarch butterflies. Bumble bees and honey bees are drawn to the purple coneflower. Other butterflies prefer the blazing star. Tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. The spicebush swallowtail lays its eggs in the spicebush. Finches devour the seeds as the flowers mature. You get the picture.

Monarch butterfly on Joe-pye weed

A real eye opener for us was Professor Douglas W. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home (Timberpress). He writes that planting alien plants has several consequences: 
  •  Native insects cannot digest alien plants. 
  •  Alien plants often beget alien insects or fungi, which in turn cause havoc in our environment. 
  •  Non-native plants become invasive and replace native plants in the wild.
Alien plants are any plants which were, accidentally or on purpose, introduced into the United States. Alien plants do not provide any host plants for native insects, and thus are not part of the natural food chain. 

Bringing Nature Home lists native plants by geographical area. It also highlights the plants that support the most Lepidopera species. Soil conditions and amount of sunlight available in your yard also play a role in the decision process. Once they’re established, native plants can also tolerate drought conditions better than alien plants.

No matter where you live, there is a native plant available for your yard. Give it a try!


For more information and for samples of her work and publication credits, visit Doris's website. Photographs on this post may not be reproduced without prior permission from Doris Dumrauf. She may be reached at


  1. I enjoyed this article very much! I, too, refuse to put chemicals on my lawn. I'm one of only two homeowners in my plan who follows this rule.

    1. How frustrating, Cheryl. Our grass is totally dried, brittle and brown and the neighbors on either side of us (with inground sprinkler systems and lawn chemicals) both have beautiful green lawns. I prefer ours!


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