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May 21, 2014

Native plants are vital to the circle of life

By Linda Shepard
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Brendan Nolan, of Royal Oak, talks about the native plants offered through the Southeast Michigan Chapter of Wild Ones at Red Oaks Nature Center in Madison Heights.
Native plant specialist Drew Lathin, of Novi, presents information and a slide presentation to the Go Native! class.
 

METRO DETROIT — Native plants not only beautify a yard, but they provide vital ecological services, too.

One such ecological benefit is their effect on insect life. Pound for pound, most insect species contain more protein than beef. 

“Insects are the most important animal on the planet,” said Drew Lathin, native plant specialist and the owner of Creating Sustainable Landscapes. “And what do insects eat?” he asked. “Plants.”

Lathin led the May 10 Go Native! class at Red Oaks Nature Center in Madison Heights.

“Insects can generally only eat native plants that have developed a complex and essential relationship with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community,” Lathin said. “Most insects are specialists and eat only native plants.”

Native plants in America are generally defined as plants growing before European settlement. By attracting insects, plants support wildlife.

“If you have no native plants, you have no insects,” Lathin said.

Goldenrod, for example, supports 112 species of insects. Oak trees support 517 species. Other insect-supporting native plants include aster, Joe Pye, columbine, chokeberry and spicebush.

In comparison, common landscape plants like forsythia, butterfly bush and boxwood support one insect each, and tulips, daylilies and myrtle support no insects.

“We have been taught to value beauty over function,” Lathin said. “Our current landscape is a wasteland for nature. But you can have beauty with native plants.”

Adding to the problem are invasive species like phragmites, which are in every roadside ditch, he said.

“Many alien species (of plants) have brought disease to native plants — the Japanese chestnut blight wiped out native chestnuts and Asian dogwoods are lethal to native dogwoods.”

Native plants convert solar energy into food, while not requiring watering, fertilizers or pesticides, he said. Their deep root systems “don’t known when it is a drought,” he said.

Lawn is the largest cultivated crop in the United States, Lathin said, using an average of 30 percent of available municipal water and 30,000 tons of pesticide a year. He recommends slow-growing native buffalo grass, which has roots reaching 5 feet deep — compared to fescue-type grass, which has roots of just a few inches.

Lawn fertilizer and pesticide companies “don’t want you to know about buffalo grass,” he said. Soil amending also is a mistake, Lathin said.

“I believe in finding a species of plant that evolved in that type of soil,” he said.

Using native plants and grasses often boils down to social change, he said — modifying city and neighborhood regulations. But once established, native plants will attract wildlife.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “Insects, birds, bats, bees, dragonflies, heron, monarch butterflies, toads and frogs.”

“And leave the plants and seeds standing in the winter,” he said. “That is the best birdfeeder.”

Diane Lohwasser and her husband, Dolph Lohwasser, of West Bloomfield, attended the Go Native! class, which was sponsored by the Southeast Michigan Chapter of Wild Ones. The organization’s officials aim to “heal the earth one yard at a time.”

“We live in a partially wooded area,” Diane Lohwasser said. “We converted half our lot to nature. Now we have very little lawn; now it is plants and woods.”

“I was mowing a lot of lawn,” Dolph Lohwasser said. “After we stopped mowing the lawn, the grass died and the saplings started growing. Native wildflowers came back, like trillium. We want to keep going.”

For more information about growing native plants, visit www.wildones.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Linda Shepard at lshepard@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1065.