My Turn: Why do we need 70% native plants?

  • NANCY HAZARD

Published: 4/12/2021 6:51:37 AM

Last week, spring began for me. While it had been announced by the returning sunlight, it was not until the first hepatica flower opened that I knew it was really coming. While the hepatica flower cannot compete with the crocuses for color, it persists for a month!

Behind it the wild onions were pushing their way through the leaves, as was a lone bloodroot flower wrapped in its leaf, with the promise that many more of these beautiful but fleeting flowers would emerge soon.

In my mind I can see Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, violets, bellworts, trillium, blue cohosh, toothwort, hobble bush, showy marsh marigolds in the wet spots, and finally the curled-up fronds of ferns joining the carpet of green covering our spring woodland landscapes. Some will stay with us into the fall, but others will disappear as sunlight is replaced by the shade of a summer forest.

As I raise my eyes from the forest floor, the red blush of the flowers of red and silver maple trees catch my eye. These flowers are designed not for pollinators, but for wind to carry the male pollen to the female flowers. If you are near a wetland, the yellow willow-twigs stand out. Unlike the maples, willows depend on pollinators to carry their pollen forward, and they lure these pollinators with the promise of a hearty meal.

For Native Americans, the blooming of a wood-edge tree announced the running of the shad in the rivers — a time to celebrate spring and feast. Today, some call that tree shadbush, juneberry, serviceberry, or Amelanchier.

For other people, it is the return of birds that marks spring. In marshes, the redwing blackbirds loudly announce their arrival as they stake out territories and call for mates. The wood frogs and spring peepers join the chorus, announcing their excitement at the return of the sun. Their raucous calls for mates reverberate in waves in the afternoon sunlight and into warm evenings.

Nest-building is next for the birds, and then searching for food to raise their young.

A few weeks ago, Greening Greenfield offered a talk called “Birds, insects, and Plants,” — it was all about the lowly caterpillar. But is it lowly? As one attendee remarked, “Never before now have I given so much thought and respect to caterpillars. I’m moved to take action!”

What we learned is that caterpillars are the perfect food for baby birds — they are soft and nutritious! We also learned that chickadees carry over 300 caterpillars to their nest every day! And they are not alone. Over 90 percent of our birds depend on caterpillars and other insects to feed themselves and their babies.

So why are caterpillars so nutritious and where do birds find them? To grow, caterpillars eat leaves that plants have made — with only sunlight and carbon dioxide. All the nutrients in the leaves are concentrated in the caterpillars and then passed on to birds that eat them. These caterpillars are considered a keystone species — a species that is key to the survival of our ecosystem!

So where do the birds find all these rich nuggets near their nests? Researchers have found that they find them primarily in trees and shrubs — plants that have a lot of foliage! But not all plants are equal. Research scientist Dr. Desiree Narango found that plants that are native to our area harbor many more caterpillars, and a larger number of caterpillar species. Many non-native plants not only host few caterpillars but harbor non-native insect pests..

Alarmingly, German scientists have found that insects have declined by 80 percent in Europe over the last 50 years. And in the U.S., we now know that we have lost almost a third of our birds over a similar time frame.

But there is much we can do. Greening Greenfield has launched a campaign called “70% Native Plants for Birds,” to help us reverse these trends. Why 70 percent? Because, as Dr. Narango found, for chickadees to find enough food for their young, at least 70 percent of the plants within 50 meters of their nest must be native to the area. She also points out this means up to 30 percent of your plants can be foreign to our ecosystem, as long as they are not invasive species that can escape into the wild and take over!

Check out our website. Listen to talks about caterpillars and birds, learn where you can buy native plants, and more. Please join us in making Franklin County more beautiful and biodiverse!

Nancy Hazard is a member of Greening Greenfield. For more information go to www.GreeningGreenfieldMA.org and click on pollinators. She welcomes comments and questions at Nancy.hazard@worldsustain.net.

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