Support Biodiversity by Maintaining Native Plant Species

Help support biodiversity by nurturing the native plant species that grow naturally around your home.


| March 2014



Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed Plant

When we remove native plant species and put exotic plants and lawns in their place, we create havoc in the natural world. Dwindling butterflies and native bees are a sign of that slow-motion disaster.

Photo by Fotolia/Terry Remink

Even in the concrete jungle, animal teachers are everywhere. We, as individuals and as a species are never alone. The plants, insects and animals that make up our natural environment are crucial to survival of the planet. Zooburbia (Parallax Press, 2014) by Tai Moses reveals the relationship between nature and modern-day life. This excerpt, from chapter 5 “How to Make a Forest,” explains the importance of biodiversity and supporting native plant species.

Years ago, I met a butterfly farmer in Maui. She and her husband owned some land on the flanks of Mount Haleakala where they raised swallowtail, monarch, and Gulf fritillary butterflies. They had so many butterflies that they released the extras to flutter around the property pollinating all the flowering tropical plants. There were butterflies indoors too, perched on the bathroom towel rack, get­ting a sip of water at the kitchen faucet, clinging to the bedroom curtains. The butterfly farmer told me she’d gotten so used to see­ing butterflies that if she opened her eyes in the morning and didn’t see a butterfly, she worried that something was wrong.

I’ve thought about that remark many times over the years, because I too have come to believe that when I don’t see a butterfly—or a bee, a beetle, or a bird—something is deeply wrong. Like frogs, native bees, and songbirds, monarchs and other species of butterflies are disappearing from our envi­ronment as their habitat is developed and the host plants they depend upon for survival are replaced by exotic plants that do not sustain butterflies, or any other insect, for that matter. All the gardeners I know say they see fewer butterflies, and fewer insects of all kinds, every year. People who have their hands in the soil on a regular basis notice these kinds of things.

For decades, we have been systematically eliminating the food sources insects need to survive—namely, the native vege­tation that occurs naturally in whatever place you live. Species of native plants have coevolved with the insects over thou­sands of years. The native plants feed the bugs and the birds, and in turn the bugs and birds pollinate the plants or help dis­tribute their seeds, thereby participating in one of the earth’s most fundamental rituals of cooperation. Virtually all birds, except sea birds, depend on insects for food. Birds cannot sur­vive on seeds and berries alone. Baby songbirds eat nothing but insects. Dwindling insects means dwindling birds.

The most crucial thing I learned in all of my reading and studying and conversations with far wiser and more experi­enced wildlife gardeners was this: native plants are the irreplaceable foundations of life. When we remove native plants from our landscapes and replace them with roads and parking lots and lawns and exotic shrubs, we create havoc in the natu­ral world. Without native plants, there will be no native butterflies or insects and without insects there will be no frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, birds, bats, raccoons, bobcats, deer… and on up the food chain to humans. Declining pop­ulations of butterflies and wild bees are a sign of that slow-motion disaster-in-progress. City and suburban gardens that are carpeted with lawns and colorful ornamental shrubs and flowers may look lush and inviting, but they are practi­cally devoid of nutrition for insects and birds.

Learning all of this made everything much simpler for me. One of the most important things I could do to help my wild neigh­bors was to restore native habitat—to support the right kinds of growing things, remove some of the harmful things, and then stand back and allow nature to flourish. The entomologist and ecologist Douglas Tallamy writes that, “gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do some­thing that we all dream of doing: to make a difference.”