Submitted by Lynn Jones of the Ottawa River Institute
“Native plants” are trees, shrubs and wildflowers that have been present in the landscape for thousands of years. Cutting edge research tells us these native plants have a very powerful ability to boost biodiversity. Above left: Leaves of White Oak, a keystone plant in the Ottawa Valley that supports an astonishing 442 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillars. At right: Solidago Canadensis, an Ottawa Valley keystone plant. Also known as Goldenrod, this native flowering plant supports more than 100 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars and 42 different species of bees. Many butterflies sip the nectar and many birds eat the seeds of Goldenrod, such as Cardinals, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chickadees and Goldfinches. (All photos submitted.)
Examples of native plants in the Ottawa Valley include Pines, Oaks, Cedars, Silver and Sugar Maples, Birches, Chokecherry, Hawthorn, Goldenrod, Asters, Evening Primrose and Black-Eyed Susans.
Native plants were diminished greatly in numbers by settler activities such as forestry, agriculture, road-building, and expansion of cities and towns. The loss of native plants has led to serious declines in pollinators and songbird populations. The good news is we can restore pollinator and songbird populations by reintroducing native plants to the landscape.
Native plants have a seemingly magical ability to create a thriving web of life. Planting some native trees, shrubs and flowers in an otherwise barren field or swath of lawn can in very short order attract hundreds of species of insects, birds and other animals interacting with lush greenery and native flowers in complex and wonderful ways!
The ability of native plants to create thriving webs of life is a result of their co-evolution for millennia with insects, birds and other animals that depend on them for food and habitat. If you bring some of the native plants back, the species that depend on them come back too.
A special category of native plants is known as “keystone plants.” These plants are especially good at boosting food webs and magnifying biodiversity. Some examples of keystone plants in the Ottawa Valley are Oaks, Pines, Birches, Chokecherries, Hawthorns, Blueberries, Goldenrod and Asters. Detailed lists are available on the National Wildlife Federation website.
Keystone plants support large numbers of different species of pollinators and/or caterpillars. Many people are less than enthusiastic about caterpillars but we need to learn to love them! They are the main food for songbirds. To take just one example of how important caterpillars are to songbird populations, consider that a chickadee raising young needs to collect upwards of 500 caterpillars each day to feed its babies in the nest!
Much of the new knowledge about native plants and their phenomenal contribution to biodiversity is the work of a scientist named Douglas Tallamy at the University of Delaware. Tallamy discovered the amazing ability of native plants to boost biodiversity through practical experience on a piece of farmland in Pennsylvania where he built a house in the early 2000’s. He planted native species on his property and his neighbour planted exotic imports from Asia.
After a dozen years or so, Tallamy noticed that he had hundreds of different species of caterpillars on his oaks and other keystone plants, while his neighbour had none. In turn, those hundreds of species of caterpillars supported dozens of species of breeding birds on his property. For an inspiring 40-minute video introduction to Tallamy’s work check out “Saving Nature with Doug Tallamy.”
In addition to helping bring back songbirds, there are many other reasons to be enthusiastic about restoring healthy ecosystems. Scientists like Tallamy remind us that humans are totally dependent on “services” provided by native plants and animals in thriving ecosystems such as mature forests, meadows and wetlands. These services include oxygen and food production, water quality improvement, carbon sequestration, erosion control and many more.
Here in the Ottawa Valley there are a number of small nurseries that specialize in growing and providing native trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Connaught Nursery near Cobden, Ontario and Beaux Arbres near Bristol, Quebec, Quebec are two of these nurseries on the leading edge of the native plant revolution. For a list of sources for native plants see the Corner Pollinator Garden website. Your favourite local nursery likely also stocks some native plants and will add more as demand grows.
Bringing back native plants and the rich diverse ecosystems they support is something that can be done by everyone – individuals, schools, municipalities and business owners can all participate. One way to start is to reduce mowed grassy areas. Plant part of the mowed area in native trees, shrubs and flowers and then watch biodiversity take off!
About the author: Lynn Jones is a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. ORI’s mission is to foster sustainable communities and ecological integrity in the Ottawa River watershed.