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Taking landscapes native can provide big returns

Published: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 11:02 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 11:03 a.m. CDT

According to researchers at Texas A&M, landscaping brings an average of 109 percent return in home value on every dollar spent. Nancy Pollard, a horticulture educator at University of Illinois Extension, said that choosing native plants for the landscape can also improve your home’s ecological value.

Native plants can save on water bills once they are established, and they provide food for bird, butterfly and other wildlife populations.

Native plants support a huge network of life by providing food for caterpillars. This insect stage has gotten a bad rap, and we certainly don’t want them in our cabbages. However, native plants that host them, such as oak, black cherry or birch, are the grocery stores that mother and father birds depend on to feed their nestlings and fledglings, she said. 

“Native plants are the primary food source for literally thousands of species of moths and butterflies, particularly at their caterpillar stage,” Pollard explained.

“Few native plants mean little food for the caterpillars of these insects, so that no matter how hard a pair of birds tries, they can’t find enough caterpillars to feed their clutch of baby birds, and the babies don’t make it.”

Look around the landscape. If nothing has holes in it, nothing is able to eat there. A blemish-free landscape is effectively a food desert for wildlife.

Non-natives typically will support very few native insects. They gained popularity in the last century of landscaping when it seemed like a good idea to have insect-free foliage, but they do not provide nourishment for the local wildlife food chain.

“What native trees support the most butterfly and moth species? Oaks top the list,” said Pollard.

“They support a whopping 534 species of moths and butterflies. Native birds eat the caterpillars that eat the oaks, all without doing any significant harm to the trees. So plant an oak this spring.”

Choosing native plants when upgrading the landscape can make a big difference to the sustainability of wildlife populations.

Black cherries are a close second to oaks, supporting 456 species of butterflies and moths.

Willow at 455, birch at 413, and poplar at 368 round out the top five on the native tree list, according to Doug Tallamy, entomologist and wildlife ecologist at the University of Delaware and author of Bring Nature Home.

Are you willing to live with a few holes in the foliage to feed backyard populations of insects and birds?

“Your garden of native plants can be beautiful, provide a good return on investment, and play a critical role in feeding native wildlife,” Pollard said.

Top Native Trees

Which native trees support the largest number of wildlife species? These are the top five:

• Oak (534)

• Black cherry (456)

• Willow (455)

• Birch (413)

• Poplar (368)

Source: University of Illinois Extension

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