Why Native Plants Matter

Carol Roberts

Monarch Caterpillar by Carol Robert
Monarch caterpillar on common
milkweed (Carol Roberts)

Native plants growing naturally in our Cedar Creek watershed include ferns, grasses, shrubs, and trees, and beautiful woodland wildflowers such as trout lily, trillium, hepatica, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and spring beauty.

Native plants are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people. “Native plants [and animals] have evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community” (Darke and Tallamy).

Through human encroachment (development, urbanization), native habitat (wetlands, forests, meadows) and farmland continue to be destroyed, threatening extinction of some native species, such as those listed above. Restoring and helping ensure this native habitat thrives is vital to nurturing and sustaining the Cedar Creek valley’s biodiversity.

Everything natural on Earth is connected.

Native plants and native insects evolved together. Here’s the connection:

  • Plants are the only organisms that can transform the sun’s energy into a form that can be used by other organisms.

  • The largest group of these “other organisms” are insects which, in turn, provide the crucial life link for all other species higher up in the food chain.

  • So the higher the percentage of native plants, the higher the number of native insects that support other species.

  • Fewer native plants means fewer native insects. (When habitat loss and pesticides caused the rusty-patched bumblebee’s population to plummet 90% since the mid-1990’s, it became the first bumble bee to receive federal endangered species protection--in 2017.)

  • Fewer native insects means fewer native birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, such as bats.

In a healthy, biodiverse Cedar Creek ecosystem, pollen from a variety of native plants attracts butterflies, pollinating bees, and other helpful insects, establishing amazing complex relationships with other native plants and animals, such as these:

  • Nestling birds--not yet able to leave the nest--require protein that is only obtained from insects. But without native plants, native insects cannot survive, and without these insects, the nestling birds cannot survive. (Research by entomologist Doug Tallamy shows that "native oak trees support over 500 species of native caterpillars while ginkgos, a commonly planted landscape tree from Asia, host only 5 species of caterpillars. When it takes over 6,000 caterpillars to raise just one brood of chickadees, that is a significant difference” [Audubon].)

  • Dutchman’s breeches appear in spring on Cedar Creek’s steep northern banks--- just in time to feed emerging queen bees.

  • Toad Trillium/Toadshade’s maroon, malodorous petals [the color and smell of rotting meat] attract flies which pollinate the flower; then the flies become food for hummingbirds which arrive in the Cedar Creek valley at the same time.

  • Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves--the only food source for monarch larvae. After eating milkweed, the monarch larvae acquire a bitter taste which repels predators. The problem? 80% of all Midwestern milkweeds have been eradicated due to unpredictable weather, human development, and herbicides.

Gardening with Native Plants by Carol Robert
Gardening with native plants (Carol Roberts)

So what can I do to help?

  1. Turn all or part of your yard into a restored natural area by adding or re-establishing native plants (including milkweed for the Monarchs). Native plants not only support wildlife: they also can make your life easier. Native plants:

    • know where they belong and how to take care of themselves.

    • are better able to resist nonnative insects, disease, and drought.

    • do not eradicate other species of plants (as invasive plants do).

    • need no fertilizing, thinning, watering, mowing, herbicide spraying (though they do need decaying leaves/natural mulch around them).

    • beautifully support and blend into Cedar Creek’s diverse natural surroundings while honoring Indiana’s natural heritage.

  2. At summer’s end, put into sealed trash bags your “dead” nonnative species from domestic gardens and porch flowerpots. Do not dump them onto property borders (like the back of your lot) that edge woods or other wild areas, or they may reseed and invade the natural areas.

  3. Want open space in your patch of earth, but something easier to care for than a mono-culture, fertilized, raked and regularly-mowed lawn? Try planting a natural, low maintenance “lawn” of at least two native grasses that will wave in the wind while providing food for different kinds of wildlife (including pollinators), room for ground-nesting birds, and a subtle beauty that can please your eye and lift your spirits. (Local sources are listed below.)

  4. Learn how to identify, locate, control, and eradicate aggressive invasive plants in the Cedar Creek valley. (Warning: never plant these invasives--they will take over!) Invasives include autumn olive, bouncing bet, buckthorn (glossy and common), bull thistle, bush honeysuckle, callery pear, Canada thistle, common and cut leaf teasel, creeping Charlie, dame’s rocket, English ivy, garlic mustard,Japanese barberry, Japanese stiltgrass, multiflora rose, oriental bittersweet, pachysandra (Japanese spurge), periwinkle/myrtle (vinca minor), phragmites (reed canary grass), tree of heaven, and white mulberry. You can find complete lists of nonnative invasive plants with their native alternatives at, and in other sources listed below.

  5. Join us in the protection and preservation work of Friends of Cedar Creek (FoCC) , ACRES Land Trust , and other local conservation groups. You will be warmly welcomed!

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