By Lynn Kunstman
Master Gardener 2012
Part Two of a four-part series
Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, The Living Landscape, and The Nature of Oaks, is a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. He has written widely about the importance of choosing native plants for our gardens and encourages us to demand more from our yards and gardens.
Instead of just planting for decorative or aesthetic reasons, we must choose plants that provide the following ecosystem services: soil enrichment and stabilization, water filtration, food production for humans and wildlife, carbon sequestration, weather moderation, habitat, and pollinator support.
NATIVE PLANTS provide ALL these services, while non-native plants do not.
Baby birds MUST eat soft food – meaning caterpillars. Insects specialize when they lay their eggs. Caterpillars, the larvae of butterflies and moths, develop from eggs laid on plants that have co-evolved with their insect partners who use them for host plants. Specialization allows the larvae to safely eat the leaves of a plant that might be toxic to other insects.
When we plant non-native plants in our landscapes, we grow fewer caterpillars. Fewer caterpillars mean a reduction in the numbers of birds. Recent research indicates that there are almost 3 billion fewer breeding birds in North America compared to 45 years ago. This is a 30% decline. Our butterflies and moths MUST lay their eggs on native plants. Their caterpillars need to feed on the NATIVE plants with which they co-evolved. Without native plants, we have no butterflies and moths, and our birds have NO CATERPILLARS to feed their young. Caterpillars also supply food for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. They are a major component of all our food webs.
Choosing native shrubs for your yard will help support our declining bird populations. Some examples of shrubs you might choose are California lilac, serviceberry, and huckleberry. These shrubs host 93, 81, and 130 species of butterfly and moth, respectively.
California lilac (Ceanothus sp.) likes full sun, has glossy evergreen leaves and brilliant blue flowers that open in early spring.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) can grow to 15 feet in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It can be pruned to a small tree or leave it to spread into a thicket. Deciduous, with fragrant flowers in May and dark blue berries, it provides important summer food and cover.
Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) will need more water than the others and will tolerate more shade. A beautiful, glossy evergreen shrub, it provides extra early blooms for bees, shiny, tasty blue-black berries for you and the birds, and makes a lovely base understory planting in a moist, shaded woodland garden.
To learn more about native plants and how to use them as foundations for your landscape, visit
Native Plant Finder
Remember, plant choice always matters. Garden for Life!