Friday, May 08, 2015

The New Nature

Recently, there has been a surge in literature throughout the conservation community highlighting the importance of native plant gardening for the sustainability of wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation writes that chickadees, for example, require 5,000 insects from native plants to successfully rear a clutch. I trust them, just as I do Doug Tallamy's fantastic book that highlights the importance of converting landscapes from turf to native flora to benefit wildlife. These and a myriad of other articles have positively impacted many communities now embracing native plantings in urban areas; they have reinvigorated Wild Ones chapters, native plant enthusiasts, and wildlife advocates. Add to the resurgence in growing natives are the reports of impacts to non-target wildlife from the widespread broadcasting of glyphosate and other herbicides in an effort for a "weed-free" lawn, and so forth. The assault on wildlife and the natural world is pervasive with sprawling development, wanton abuse of chemicals, regular thumbing of the nose to regulatory agencies and procedures that were put into place in the 1970s during the heyday of the environmental movement.

Yes, I'm familiar with all of this. And yes, my urban lot, located close to a thriving downtown of brewpubs and farmer's markets, is chocked full of native flora. I do not have a lawn, I do not apply chemicals to my yard, and hopefully one day I can afford to buy this old Craftsman bungalow with no attic fan or air conditioning to protect the yard's 400 year old witness tree, a fire-scarred chinquapin oak. Lots of birds, snakes and invertebrates use my yard because of its native quality and active management regime.

So when well-minded individuals seek to convert an old hay pasture or lawn into a native grassland to support wildlife, it's an easy project to support. However, when the old pasture is nestled in an intact landscape of woodlands and glades with their own suite of native plants, I tend to be a little concerned. Where are the seeds coming from? Native to Missouri, yes, but what region? What is the criteria for introducing plants to a certain area if they were not known to exist there historically? Creating wildlife habitat with native plants is good mission in areas that are already destroyed, areas without existing native plants. But compromising the integrity of native systems by adding native plants that may have never been there to begin with is dicey, and is cause for concern. Native plants thrive in native environments because they are suited to the soils, climate, and so forth. So if someone broadcasts a big bag of prairie seeds gathered in the Osage Plains (or even in Kansas) on a field on the Central Plateau in the Ozarks, many of those prairie seeds will germinate. If that field is surrounded by glades, woodlands, fens, or other intact systems, those prairie plant seeds through time may end up in these native systems where they don't belong. Miscanthus, bush honeysuckle, privet, all of these exotics that were planted in yards are now showing up in native systems far removed from where they were originally planted. No one will argue that they compromise an area's naturalness, but so, too, do native plants that are introduced from another locality.

I understand the drive to plant pollinator gardens. I had a great one when I lived in the bootheel where I was surrounded by corn fields. I understand the value of little patches of native flora in a sea of destroyed nature. But when plants of unknown genetics are introduced to native ecosystems, the scientific value and preciousness and fragility of the existing plant life is compromised. Eventually, with the surge in interest in native plantings, we may not be able to visit landscapes with all the rare and original elements in place. Baptisia australis? It's a beautiful plant in the White River Hills, but when it shows up in a seed mix on a sandstone prairie, it's woefully out of range and out of context. Sadly, this mixed up, seed mix-driven ecosystem creation may represent what future generations will know as Nature. It's a sad day when planting milkweeds is vital to the future of the monarch. Glades, woodlands, prairies, fens, they all have milkweeds and many other plants vital to the life history of suites of insects. Protect the nature where it exists, where the ancient genetic memory of intact systems serves entire systems, not just bees and butterflies.


Jill Henderson said...

I have always been a little put off by "wild seed" mixes and now I know why. Great post and good advice for well-meaning naturalist gardeners... I've enjoyed your blog for some time and would love to share some of your posts with my readers if you would be interested in having them shared.

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks for reading! Sure, feel free to share. I think there are a lot of folks with really good intentions, but there is so much value in the original seedbank in so many of our natural settings....