Growing Native Plants In The City

Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only crops you should be growing. Native plants will support a diverse ecosystem in your backyard.

by Robert Pekel
PHOTO: John Flannery/Flickr

“Garden as if your life depended on it,” wrote Douglas Tallamay, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, when he autographed my copy of his book, Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2009). I had been actively involved planting native plants for several years and was eager to hear his presentation at the Ozark Botanical Garden.

Tallamay outlined the crucial role native plants play in a landscape by providing a fundamental source of food that support insects. The diet of most insects consist of only several, specific plants. For example, monarch butterflies in the larval stage feed entirely on milkweed. As the milkweed population has declined, so have monarch butterflies. Insects are the first link of the food chain, and as the monarch example demonstrates, the declining native plant population threatens this very important first link.

The Case For Natives

native plants
John Flannery/Flickr

Landscapes across America have been flooded with foreign plants such as Bradford pears, crape myrtles, privets and Bermudagrass. The problem is plants from the other side of the world do not produce the food local insects need to live. Insect diets have consisted of native plants for thousands of years, and they cannot adapt their diet to foreign plants in the few short decades that foreign plants have become conventional in landscapes. Therefore, foreign plants result in a sterile, ecologically dead environment that does not support insects.

Native plants, however, do more than support the food chain. They’re suited to local climate and soil conditions. For the most part, native plants are resistant to local pests and diseases. This leaves a soft energy footprint because the need for harmful pest controls, fertilizers and intensive watering is eliminated. Therefore native plants connect a landscape to the natural world and create harmony in the outdoor living area.

There are about 60 million acres of residential property in the United States. Suburbs and urban areas encompass much of this land. Small spaces have become the battlegrounds and first line of defense to support insects and wildlife. Each yard is valuable. Every square foot that supports life counts. Postage stamp-sized yards hosting native perennials, shrubs and a small pond will attract wildlife like a magnet. Even a balcony can support butterflies and birds with potted plants, a bird feeder and cascading fountain.

What Is A Native Plant?

native plants
John Flannery/Flickr

The definition of a native plant has been debated. For example, mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is considered an immigrant because it has only been in this country several hundred years, yet it offers seeds for many birds and attracts a range of butterflies, moths, bees and other insects. In my opinion, when a plant supports wildlife, is adapted to the regional climate, and can thrive without the aid of pest controls, fertilizer and heavy water requirements, it qualifies as native. It need not be complicated.

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Choosing Native Plants

native plants
John Flannery/Flickr

Native plant societies, botanical gardens, the county extension office, and Master Gardeners are helpful resources located in almost every county in each state and are equipped with information on native plants, growing conditions, as well as locating native plant nurseries. Reputable websites, such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, are also useful.

When purchasing plants, it is a good idea to read the label. Sun/shade and wet/dry conditions vary among plants. Beware of insecticides. A plant sprayed with insecticides will kill beneficial insects as well as the bad, and have been linked to honey bee colony collapse. Unbelievably, I have found native plants such as Echinacea, brown-eyed Susan, and lobelia sprayed with these chemicals in some of the big-box stores. Remember to read the label.

native plants
John Flannery/Flickr

Below are lists of some native perennials, shrubs, understory trees and canopy trees to help guide your native-plant search and build your garden. All the species listed are local to the southern Midwest in zones 6 to 7. Some will be familiar, and do well across the country. There are spring, summer, and fall bloomers that can be combined to attract pollinators throughout the growing season.

Native Perennials

Perennials, which come back every year, are a good choice for small spaces or in pots.

  • Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis): a spring bloomer; supports butterflies and birds; drought tolerant
  • Arkansas Blue Star (Amsonia hubrichtii): beautifully textured leaves with blue star;like flowers; spring bloomer; supports butterflies; drought tolerant
  • Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate): supports birds, butterflies and insects; drought tolerant
  • Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate): seeds are eaten by quail and many other birds
  • Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida): supports butterflies and birds; drought tolerant
  • Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima): supports birds and butterflies; graceful and beautiful plant that is one of my favorites
  • Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa): an important fall bloomer for insects
  • Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus): tubers are eaten by humans and wildlife
  • Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii): a stunning, tall grass that used to cover the Midwest; supports birds and butterflies

Native Shrubs

Shrubs are woody, multi-stemmed plants. Used as perimeter plantings, they offer privacy in addition to food, shelter, and nesting for wildlife in a landscape. Smaller varieties of shrubs can be grown in pots.

  • Hazelnut (Corylus americana): provides edible fruit for humans and wildlife
  • Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum): provides food for birds and nectar for butterflies
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): supports butterflies, insects and birds
  • Purple Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana): drought tolerant; nectar for insects and food for birds

Native Understory Trees

Understory trees are smaller trees that live under the canopy trees.

  • Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia): a host for butterflies and food for birds
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arbore): small, dark-purple fruit that birds and people love
  • Redbud (Cercis canadensis): a host for butterflies and food for birds

Native Canopy Trees

Canopy trees are large trees that are the highest layer of leaf cover.

  • White Oak (Quercus alba): hosts butterflies and insects; provides acorns for wildlife
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum): hosts butterflies; food for insects
  • Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana): offers food for birds

Native plants will resurrect a sterile, ecologically dead landscape. The inviting colors, and luring scents attract wildlife. Native plants develop harmony while they reconnect outdoor living to the natural world.

A native landscape is free from the chemical burdens and intensive management that plague conventional landscapes. The greatest potential to support the first link in the food chain are small spaces in urban and suburban settings. Food, shelter and water are the vital elements to a living, vibrant landscape. Native plants sustain a panorama of insects including butterflies, moths and grasshoppers. Birds, frogs and other wildlife will reappear. Balance is restored.

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