by Terry Melton
In 1981, the little Cape Cod house we bought on East Irvin Avenue had 50 ornamental rose bushes, a new gardening challenge for me, and one that was short-lived, as I promptly killed every one with unintended benign neglect. How times have changed! With the publication of Doug Tallamy’s runaway best-seller Bringing Nature Home in 2007, gardeners everywhere began turning their properties into insect and bird magnets by planting native species instead of purely ornamental outsiders.
Generally speaking, native plants are those that have been endemic to an area for most of that area’s history. The native plants that populate an ecosystem—whether it be meadow, wetland, or forest, or even the suburban backyard—feed, shelter, and facilitate the reproduction of the animals that co-exist with them. The relationships between all species in an ecosystem have evolved in a feedback loop over millions of generations to sustain a pattern where timing of bloom or leaf emergence corresponds to the hatching of insects which need the plants to feed their young or put on growth. In turn, these insects-caterpillars, beetles, and other bugs-are food sources forbirds and mammals, who then nourish animals higher in the food chain.
Tallamy impresses us with the fact that a brood of baby chickadees will eat 5,000 to 9,000 insects before fledging; the top four tree species to host many of those insects are our native oaks (534 insect species), willows (456), and cherries/plums (456). The Plants of Pennsylvania (2007) states that about 2200 native plant species are found in our state, including 134 species of trees. It is believed that at least 116 species of plants that once grew here have been extirpated, with reasons ranging from invasive species competition to climate change to over-collection.
For decades. the Highlands has sported beautiful street trees like native oaks, lindens, redbuds, and red maples, but because of fungal or insect diseases we have lost our important chestnuts, elms, and ashes. Non-native trees and shrubs like Bradford pear, autumn olive, burning bush, honeysuckle, and barberry, while producing berries for mature wildlife, do not host the insects whose protein and fat are required during bird reproduction and nestling growth. Bringing back diversity and quantity of plant life, with commensurate diversity and quantity of dependent insects and birds, is the goal of those who “grow native” in the Highlands.
In speaking with my Highlands neighbors, I hear of many who are planting natives successfully and seeing an increase in bird life in their own yards. Pennsylvania native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials can be found locally at Tait Farm and Fox Hollow Gardens, for example, or at annual sales (Centre Furnace Mansion, Pennsylvania Native Plant Society, PSU Extension Master Gardeners), and viewing native plant communities/gardens is possible everywhere these days (ClearWater Conservancy, PSU Arboretum, Millbrook Marsh, Muddy Paws Marsh, Tudek Park Snetsinger Butterfly Garden). Three seasons of each year, these beautiful spaces are alive with insects and birds at work and they are showcases for what is possible on a much smaller scale in your own backyard.
To get started with native plants in your own garden, consider your site. Is there full or partial sun, dry soil or a wet area suitable for a rain garden? Do you have a lot of space, or very little? Generally speaking, native plants are very unfussy about soil quality, so simply applying a layer of compost to the garden surface will make nearly any native plant happy.
For a shady corner with average moisture, consider black cohosh, Solomon’s seal, trillium, bloodroot, native ginger, or some of our native ferns, like Christmas fern, lady fern, maidenhair fern, or sensitive fern. A dry sunny space will support the towering Joe Pye weed or New York ironweed, as well as mallow, butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, New England Aster, mountain mint, bee–balm, cutleaf coneflower, and smooth blue aster. A boggy area is perfect for cardinal–flower, marsh marigold, button bush, or witch–hazel. Those with abundant space can plant common milkweed, goldenrod, and obedient plant in addition to a host of trees and shrubs such as elderberry, serviceberry, and chokeberry. For the gardener with an eye for esoterica, there’s the monkey-flower, nodding onion, or spikenard and its relative devil’s walkingstick.
Though most plants support many insect species, some insect species are specialists in what they prefer to feed or reproduce on. A spicebush will attract the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, while milkweed is required by monarch butterflies. The white-marked tussock moth feeds on the hazelnut, and the cecropia moth prefers cherry trees. The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly thrives on turtlehead.
Native plants have their own wild relaxed beauty and an astonishing range of color and form, and combine beautifully with traditional non-native formal ornamentals such as heuchera, hellebores, irises and peonies, as well as with the casual charming self-seeders that populate thegarden year after year such as forget-me-nots, bachelor’s buttons, and lunaria. The garden so configured brings to the senses the best of all worlds, with the addition of native plants that support our animal friends.
About the author: Terry Melton is a 40-year resident of the Highlands. She is the founder and former CEO of Mitotyping Technologies. From 2008-2020 she was Team Leader caring for ClearWater Conservancy’s Native Garden on North Atherton. She has been restoring a rural property in Potter Township since 2009.