Milk Weed. Image from Henderson State University.
For the past three weeks this column has focused on the role native plants play in our homes, backyards, and communities, cleaning up toxins and supporting biodiversity. To read the previous two columns go here and here. This week’s column is an extension of last week’s discussion of the excellent book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Suatain Wildlife with Native Plants.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County (and surrounding areas), Arkansas.
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For the past two weeks this column has focused on the role gardens can play in both cleaning up toxins in the soil and supporting a healthy and diverse ecosystem. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading Douglas W. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. It’s helping me rethink the way I garden. Backyard gardening for family food production is a strong, living tradition here in the Yell and Pope county area. If you’re like me, you are probably so excited about all those tomatoes ripening on the vine. It doesn’t take much space to grow a small kitchen garden, which can supplement our diet and provide even a surplus of food. Yet how often do we think about providing food for other species as well?
As I mentioned last week, this book is truly transforming the way I think about my own garden and why and how all of us–city dwellers and rural landowners alike—can and should produce gardens that not only support our own needs, but the needs of wildlife as well. Ecosystems are complex webs, and if we want the land to continue to produce the food that sustains us, we have to make sure the bird and insect populations eat as well. To do so, we need native plants and a general awareness of the food sources these creatures need. This is not so much a problem in more rural areas where undeveloped land still exists (although its becoming increasingly so). But for many of us who live in small towns and big cities, our gardens may be the only green spaces in a sea of pavement and Bermuda grass lawns, both of which provide virtually no food for the literal birds and bees. We can transform our gardens into food sources not just for us, but for other creatures as well.
Last week I mentioned toads, but the same concept to apply to butterflies. I don’t know about you, but watching the butterflies and moths jump from flower to flower, gliding between the flowerbeds so gracefully, is one of the main reasons I plant flowers in the first place. I’ve always loved native wildflowers and knew butterflies love them. Yet the more I read about native plants, I am realizing I don’t know as much about butterfly gardening as I thought I did. For example, you may have heard that butterfly bush is a great plant for bees and butterflies. It is true that adult butterflies will drink the nectar from the bush and it will indeed bring butterflies to the yard. But, unlike native plant species such as milkweed or black-eyed Susan’s, the butterfly bush it is not an adequate breeding ground for butterfly larva in Arkansas, and they won’t lay their eggs there. So while the bush may attract adult butterflies, it does nothing to actually help sustain the butterfly population in the long run. To create a habitat for butterflies, and to ensure a new generation of these amazing creatures, our yards need plenty of plants in the milkweed species, all of which grow wild but can also be planted from seeds or purchased from native plant nurseries. Coneflowers and bee balm are also great as are buttonbush and Joe-Pye Weed, violets, even Oak trees.
The great news is that it’s not hard to start changing our gardens to support butterfly reproduction. And you don’t have to turn your whole yard into a wildflower garden. You can use native plants in the same way you use any other ornamental plants, maintaining a manicured garden if that’s what you (or you neighbors) prefer. You can work slowly to add more and more natives as time and space allows. Visit me online at the Boileddownjuice.com to find a list of links Arkansas native plants, native plant resources, and more. And tell me about your garden! I truly believe gardens are one of our most important living traditions and I’d love to hear your thoughts on gardening and hear about your own garden!
Arkansas Native Plant Society
Audubon Arkansas’s List of Flowers for Birds and Bees
Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center, Arkansas Reccomendations.
Pine Ridge Gardens, London, Arkansas