A meadow of yellow, pink and white flowers

For Wildlife And Humans, Native Plants Are A Key To Climate Resilience

In our work, we regularly put an emphasis on the importance of using native plants when creating habitat, whether it’s a new prairie, a farm hedgerow, a meadow in a park, or a flower border in your own backyard. Pollinators are often the principal interest for these types of projects, but the benefits of using native plants go far beyond, including, potentially, into a more climate-resilient future for people and wildlife. 

Native Plants Buffer Wildlife from Food Shortages, Environmental Disruptions

Plants form the foundation of the habitat for many different species of insects. In turn, these support other animals and thus, our environment in general. When the plants and insects that form the base of our wild food chain are present in higher numbers, and when shelter and habitat are better connected across the landscape, wildlife populations are more resilient to disruptions like fires or major storms.

That native plants are better for insects has been demonstrated by numerous studies. In California’s Bay Area, for example, surveys done by Gordon Frankie of UC Berkeley in urban and suburban gardens found that native flowers supported more species and larger numbers of bees than non-native plants. In Britain, a study conducted by the Royal Horticultural recorded a greater abundance and diversity of insects in garden beds comprised of native plants than those the researchers described as “near-native” (Northern Hemisphere) and “exotic” (Southern Hemisphere) plants. The difference was often 20% or more. There are many other studies with similar findings, but the work of Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware is probably the best known thanks to his books such as Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks.

A meadow of yellow, pink and white flowers
Native plants are known to support a greater abundance and diversity of bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. When used in habitat creation projects, they can also help mitigate climate change as part of nature-based climate solutions. (Photo: Xerces Society / Nancy Adamson.)

While walking around his home, Tallamy noticed that areas with non-native plants seemed to lack wildlife, a realization that launched years of research. His initial research looked at how many species of moth and butterfly caterpillars used plants, both native and non-native, growing in the Mid-Atlantic region. The findings were startling—on average, native plants supported 15-times as many native caterpillar species as non-native plants (74 species as opposed to 5). Tallamy’s subsequent studies have just reinforced this as well as illustrated the direct links between insects and other wildlife. A pair of chickadees, for example, need to collect between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to feed their nestlings—and these need to be gathered during a period of two to three weeks and within an area that stretches only a couple of hundred feet from the nest. Many other birds—if not the majority—such as bluebirds, barn swallows, and even burrowing owls, also need insects to rear their young.

Orange & blue bird, side profile, holding a caterpillar
Like the majority of songbirds, bluebirds rear their young on caterpillars and other insects. Studies show that native plants support up to 15 times as many caterpillars as non-native plants. (Photo: kansasphoto, Flickr [CC BY 2.0].)
Native Plants Trap Carbon, Protect Cities from Heat and Weather

Clearly, native plants are better for our wildlife than non-native plants, but the benefits don’t end there—creating habitat can also help to address climate change. Such nature-based climate solutions—actions that both benefit wildlife and mitigate climate change—are being widely adopted in many communities. Native plants have a large role to play in these solutions. Plants lock up planet-warming carbon dioxide as well as provide food and shelter for bees and butterflies, and make a neighborhood more attractive and livable. The benefits of these actions are significant. It is estimated that nature-based climate solutions can account for 30% of the carbon sequestration needed to limit warming to 3.6˚F (2°C) by the end of the century.

Significant climate-related events like the “heat dome” that brought record high temperatures to the Pacific Northwest, the extended mega-drought afflicting western states, tidal flooding in Florida, unseasonal tornados in the Midwest, and “bomb cyclones” in New England make the TV news, but climate change is altering our neighborhoods in more subtle ways. As weather patterns shift, towns and cities are feeling more intense urban heat island effects. These increasing temperatures may change bees’ rate of development or the date of emergence (have you noticed bumble bees earlier in spring?), as well as reducing their survival rates and reproduction. Ultimately, this can result in fewer bees. In fact, research by April Hamblin and colleagues at North Carolina State University showed that bee abundance in the city of Raleigh declined 41% with every 1.8˚F (1˚C) increase in temperature.

A garden with pink, purple and yellow flowers in front of a brown house.
A garden full of native plants will provide a home for a wide variety of bee species. It does not need to be big to have an impact and contribute to transforming our neighborhoods and urban landscapes. (Photo: Emily May.)

By greening and transforming our landscapes, we can absorb carbon, reduce urban temperatures, provide habitat that supports pollinators and many other animals, create connections between larger patches of habitat that will allow pollinators to move through our communities—and native plants are the best way to do this. In addition to supporting a greater diversity and abundance of bees, and vastly more species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, native plants are typically better adapted to local conditions, making them easier to grow and more likely to survive. 

Growing Your Own Climate-Resilient Landscape

There are many sources of information about how to choose native plants and where to get them, but the Xerces Society website offers a series of plant lists that will guide you to good plants for native bees as well as the best nectar sources to fuel monarch butterflies. (For monarchs, you’ll also need native milkweeds for the caterpillars.) In general, it is best to find plants that are from a local ecotype (those that occur naturally in your area) and are from a local supplier. This may mean tracking down a smaller nursery rather than grabbing plants at a big box store, but the bees and butterflies will thank you for your extra effort. Our Pollinator Conservation Resource Center includes lists of native plant growers and suppliers for each region.

Creating habitat is one part of the solution to many of the problems we face, and is something that any of us with any amount of space can do. Yes, the bigger the area the better, but even containers on your porch or balcony is a step in the right direction. This is not something that will happen overnight, but Earth Day seems like the perfect time to take that first step.

Further Reading

Find which native plants are suitable for your area.
Learn how to transform lawns into native meadows.
For other information and plant nursery suggestions, visit our Pollinator Conservation Resource Center.
Read about climate-smart actions for urban habitat.
Read more about nature-based climate solutions.
The Xerces YouTube channel offers many videos and webinars about pollinators and how to create different types of habitat.

Author:

Matthew Shepherd

Director of Outreach and Education
The Xerces Society

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