Careful what you plant

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Becky Gillette – Some of the most active participants in the Save the Ozarks effort to defeat a proposed high voltage transmission line have continued their efforts to protect the environment, this time against invading plants that don’t belong in the Ozarks.

The transmission power line has been defeated, but invasive plants like English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and others not native to the Ozarks are marching across the landscape posing a growing threat to native plants, butterflies, birds and bees.

“Native plants are vital to food webs, to watersheds, to pollinators, to soil health, to biodiversity and ultimately to ourselves and future generations of all living things on the planet,” according to Susan Pang, who has donated hundreds of plants for the Downtown Native Pagoda Garden. “The food web depends on native plants.”

An example she gives of a co-evolved relationship and dependency between plant and animal is the Monarch butterfly. The female Monarch must leave her egg sac on the leaves of the milkweed plant, and only the milkweed plant will do. Monarch caterpillars have evolved with the milkweed plant being their only viable source of food if they are to make it to the larva, pupa and adult stages of their lifecycle.

Widespread development and spraying of herbicides for agricultural crops has left the U.S. with a steep decline in the number of milkweed plants, which has translated into far fewer Monarch butterflies. “The steep loss of the Monarch butterfly and how it correlates with the loss of its host plant, the milkweed, is not a coincidence,” Pang said.

The problem is not unique to the Ozarks. There are what Pang calls “strip mall landscapes” across the country where native vegetation has been decimated.

“From the gulf coast of Florida with sandy soil to the desert sands of the Southwest, we see nothing but ‘sameness’ with identical turf grass,” Pang said. “This is unnatural. Turf grass is a native to the cool and moist climate of the U.K. It was planted by well-off American statesmen from the seventeenth-century onwards. They were influenced by the vast lawns of the English estates. Even to this day, nearly all European estates have lawn, but they have flocks of sheep that keep it cut back. The use of herbicides, pesticides, nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, irrigation and fossil fuels is primarily an American preoccupation.”

Pang said in order to keep our artificially-grown 45.6 million acres of sprawling superiority going, we are sacrificing the health of many other things in one way or another. Creatures are steadily dying because of the unsustainable practice of keeping a lawn where it simply doesn’t naturally belong.

“Native plants use less and produce more,” she said. “They have more flowers, longer root systems to retain soil, and can propagate by seed. Biodiversity is not having the same twenty plants in your yard as your neighbor but only having them arranged differently.”

An example she gives is boxwoods, a popular evergreen shrub which supports only one type of insect while native shrubs supports a large number of native insects. Non-native marigolds support three insect species while native asters support 105 species. Violets are often pulled out or sprayed by gardeners. But Pang advises not being too hasty to get rid of them because they support 27 species of native butterfly and moth populations.

And native gardens can still be very pleasing to the eye.

“Our lot in urban Saint Louis has more flowers than anyone and we don’t use a sprinkler system, fertilizers, mowing or blowing,” she said. “We recycle all of our leaves in a compost pile.”

There are also issues regarding non-native vegetation creating good habitat for insects you don’t want to come into contact with. There have been studies showing thickets of English Ivy and winter creeper hold water enough for breeding mosquitoes and ticks.

“Municipalities spraying pesticides and larvicides around town are wasting their time and spreading poison unnecessarily, many environmentalists believe,” Pang said. “Invasive plants in their indigenous environments have predators to keep them contained. But once they are transplanted with no natural predators, invasive plants destroy in a multitude of ways.”

For more information, Pang recommends Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home or contacting Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Jefferson City, mowildflowers.net.