By Sabine Alstrom
Published in Take 5 Magazine, August 2021
As a nature lover who has enjoyed native plants for many years, I have noticed that the vast majority of gardens feature hardly any native flora in their designs.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this includes the gardens of people who genuinely care for our natural world and who understand the urgent need to preserve wildness.
The most likely reason is our conditioning from childhood onwards by the gardens around us, which focus on the decorative value of plants, never their ecological function. Nurseries strengthen this cultural mantra by promoting showy flowering species that are native to Asia, the Mediterranean, the tropics and so on.
And why not? I hear you say. After all, they are beautiful to look at. Plus, one might add, they garner respect and admiration from neighbours and visitors, enhancing our status. Regarding native plants, the cultural imperative seems to be: not in my backyard.
But here’s the big catch: introduced plants are not good at providing food for the native animals that drive our ecosystems. A full third of our wild bees are specialists, meaning their larvae, the next bee generation, can only feed on the pollen of certain native plant lineages. Over hundreds of thousands of years, they have evolved with these local plants in a win-win relationship. Bees get pollen, food for their larvae, from specific plant genera or even from a single species, while the plants ensure that their pollen is spread mostly in their own genus, guaranteeing seed production and propagation.
Now, picture a little newly emerged specialist bee, single-mindedly searching for the particular native flower it needs to rear its brood. If this mother bee can’t find those plants, it can’t fulfill the purpose of its short life: nest-building, egg laying and provisioning the babies with a pile of pollen food. When this little bee dies, so will future generations with it.
This scenario is happening around us millions of times, around the neighbourhood, the country and sadly, the world.
For the wild specialist bees, the most stunning introduced plants might as well be made of plastic. Our love affair with foreign plants is killing our bees by leaving them without food. To make things worse, many common introduced garden plants, like periwinkle, mountain bluet, yellow archangel and others, have become invasive inside and outside of gardens, forming smothering carpets that might otherwise be populated by native plants supporting ecosystem function.
Generalist bees, like mason bees, bumblebees or the non-native honey bee fare a little better, as they can make use of the pollen and nectar of some introduced plants. But along with most other insects, all are doomed by the pesticides and insecticides we liberally apply to our gardens for the sake of sterile prettiness and a perfect lawn.
Is it any wonder that an insect apocalypse is happening everywhere?
And yet, we don’t have to despair. There are some powerful positives that can fuel a turnaround:
We are lucky because the insects, although decimated are still around.
We control what grows in our gardens, and we can choose biodiversity over ecological destruction.
We can replace parts of our lifeless lawns and ornamentals with native plants, including shrubs and trees, that are the host plants for caterpillars, which are the indispensable food for baby birds. Introduced plants are essential useless at supporting the caterpillars of our native moths and butterflies.
We can opt against chemical poisons and for a natural variety of insect life, without which by the way, we humans would quickly be “toast”.
Oh, and did I mention that we have the most stunning native plants right here on the Island? They grow in my garden, but we hardly see them in nature anymore. When did you last notice such beauties as Woolly Sunflower, Farewell-to-Spring, Camas, Yellow Monkeyflower or Mountain Sneezeweed in the wild?
Let’s bring them back, and the wild bees, along with countless other insects, will find them. Let’s endow them wit the high status they truly deserve!
Sabine Alstrom lives in Duncan. For free help with your garden or more information, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.