Maine Audubon explains how our wildlife depends on native plants — and what you can do to help.
Courtesy of Jeff Schmoyer (Red-Eyed Vireo)
Walk into almost any garden center this spring and you’ll find rows full of exotic plants. Thanks to the global horticulture industry, plants that once only grew in far-off places, like Asia — daylilies, gingko trees, boxwoods — are now commonplace around Maine. But not all green is good, says Eric Topper, Maine Audubon’s director of education. Switching to non-native species and genetically modified plants disrupts important ecological processes that have occurred for eons in Maine’s landscape, Topper explains, not to mention the ecosystem of birds, bees, insects, animals, and crops that rely on that landscape. And that’s not the only reason to plant native. A few others:
YOU’LL SAVE TIME, MONEY, AND NATURAL RESOURCES. Plants that have evolved to thrive in the varied soils and habitats of Maine need less TLC. “A plant that’s adapted to grow here needs far less care than what you’d need to accommodate a plant that doesn’t belong here,” Topper says. So you’ll spend less time on maintenance and less money on synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers that can leave a toxic legacy on the environment. And since native plants require less watering once established, you’ll conserve an important natural resource.
YOU’LL HALT THE INVASION. Some exotic species are downright destructive. Bittersweet and knotweed, for example, spread aggressively, crowding out and literally growing over other plants. And some plants come with tagalongs. Winter and browntail moths — which have decimated tree canopies throughout the state — gained a foothold in Maine after hitching rides on perennial flowers and shrubs brought here from Europe. “So many of these problematic species get introduced when plant materials are moved around,” Topper says.
YOU’LL FEED THE FOOD WEB. From blueberries to apples to corn, food-producing plants depend on pollinators like butterflies, bees, and moths. And those pollinators depend on native plants for nectar and other needs throughout their life cycle. When they can’t find them, Topper says, “it’s like going to the store and not finding any food that your children can eat.” Lawn grasses, exotic trees, and modified plants are not good host plants, and butterflies and moths won’t lay eggs on them. They will lay eggs on native milkweed, for example, because its leaves provide food for their caterpillars. And caterpillars are a critical food for nestling birds like black-capped chickadees. No milkweed = no caterpillars = no chickadees = no lovely singsong serenades from the Maine state bird. “Whole ecosystems start to fall apart when you start replacing plants at the base of the food web,” Topper says. “If native plants are rare in our landscapes, then birds will become rare, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
Plant This, Not That
Native alternatives to flowers, shrubs, and trees are as beautiful as their exotic and cultivated counterparts. Learn about others with Maine Audubon’s new native plant finder at maineaudubon.org/plants.
Common Exotics & Cultivars
Fountain Grass, Maiden Grass
Little Bluestem, Pennsylvania Sedge
Seaside Goldenrod, Swamp Milkweed
Low Gro Sumac
Lowbush Blueberry, Sweet Fern
New Jersey Tea, Meadowsweet, Sweet Gale
Alberta Spruce, Emerald-Green Arborvitae
American Arborvitae, Common Juniper
Kwanzan Cherry, Ornamental Pear
Serviceberry, Pagoda Dogwood
Gingko, Katsura Tree
American Linden, Red Oak, Sugar Maple
Don’t miss Maine Audubon’s annual native plant sale and festival on June 13 at Gilsland Farm, in Falmouth. Find plant lists and other native-plant sale dates and locations at maineaudubon.org/plants