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By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President
There exists a connectivity between the soil, plants, and insects which are the first links in the web of life. Insects are the creatures who turn the energy from the sun, processed by plants into biomass. This insect biomass is what begins to feed the world.
Soil, plants and insects evolve together in ecosystems all over the world. In plant communities, they create habitats. Insects feed on plants, predator insects feed on insects on plants as do birds, amphibians, and mammals. Everything is fed and kept in check. Control of plants is provided by the soil, moisture and the critters that feed on them.
Once you begin replacing native plants with alien plants moved within continents and from one continent to another, the ecosystem is disrupted. The alien plants just don’t fit. Some require extensive and continuous soil amendments and water to succeed (think turf grass). Others, without their own ecosystem controls, escape and become invasive (Bradford Pear, Japanese barberry, and myrtle to name three). The insects who need to be supported cannot live on alien plants. Insects are picky eaters and almost all eat only those plants with whom they have co-evolved. Replace their natural plant communities with non-native plants and there is no insect food. Consider the well-known Monarch butterfly whose larval form lives only on plants in the milkweed family. We hear about Monarchs everywhere. However, they are but one. All other butterflies and moths have the same habits. When we landscape with non-native plants a food desert is created.
Food deserts are places that lack access to foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. Our food desert can be best seen in the decline of our migratory bird population. Some of our birds are in danger of extinction because of the food deserts we have created. To begin, 98% of all baby birds are fed insects by their parents. (The other 2% are fed fish.) The best food for these baby birds are soft, squishy caterpillars. Caterpillars contain valuable nutrients that baby birds need to grow and fledge. Research estimates that chickadee parents need to feed 6,000 to 9,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, to their clutch each year. That is ONE family. When enough caterpillars/insects are not available, the nest will fail.
It is because of this beautiful and complicated food web that we must focus on landscaping with native plants. Recent research has determined that to create a healthy food-web ecosystem, the plants on any site must be at least 70% native. This number includes ALL plants…including your turf lawn. To answer the question then, Why Native Plants? To support life.
By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President
Prairie means grassland, and comes from the French word for “meadow.” So even before we begin to think of the space that is comprised of clump forming grasses and flowers (forbs), with few trees and shrubs, we have identified it by three different names…grassland, prairie, and meadow. We typically think of the prairies of the Midwest. The grasslands crossed by wagon trains and plowed for agriculture. In Michigan, there were once areas of grasslands, mostly in the lower half of the Lower Peninsula. Those spaces are mostly urban, suburban, and agricultural areas today.
Like each separate plant community, a meadow creates specific habitat and plays an important role in the ecosystem over-all. We have lost much of that ecosystem, thereby destroying the life supported in a grassland habitat. Restoration of prairie habitat has been on the rise in recent years. For example, Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena, Michigan converted a large tract of land into a grassland. This property has the native grasses and flowers (forbs) which support the shelter and food needed by birds. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy rescued old fields in the dry upland area of their Arcadia Dunes property and rehabilitated a grassland ecosystem. Further, the Michigan DNR has grants for property owners to install meadows and are actively working in northern Lower Michigan to restore grassland habitat. The meadow ecosystem is highly valued and productive as it contains the plants to provide shelter and food for insects, birds, small mammals, and more.
There are three types of grasslands based upon the size of the grasses and the amount of moisture they typically receive. These are Tall Grass, Mixed Grass, and Short Grass. Large tracts of land are perfect for Tall Grass or Mixed Grass. These plants typically require less moisture. In suburban areas, a mixed grass or short grass may be more appropriate for scale and esthetic. Shorter grasses thrive with a bit more rainfall than tall grasses.
Native grasses have deep roots. Really deep roots. These roots perform a valuable function… they stabilize soil, are able to access more nutrients than short rooted plants, filter water, and provide their own organic matter by dying off a bit each year. They need no soil amendments and typically need no additional irrigation once established. These are tough plants.
Some species to consider in a short grass meadow: Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, June Grass, Koeleria macrantha; Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis; Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula; Northern Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium; and Bottle Brush Grass, Hystrix patula. A taller grass, Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans has gorgeous yellow blossoms, while side oats blossoms are fire engine red. These grasses provide shelter for birds and small wildlife, habitat for insects and their seeds provide late season food.
Grasslands are far from mono-cultures. There are many, many forbs that grow in grasslands. These plants cover the spectrum from early bloomers who find the sun before the grasses shade them, to tall flowering plants which grow supported by the grasses and bloom above it all.
Catherine Zimmerman, author of Urban and Suburban Meadows will be speaking at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frankfort at 7 pm July 17. She will explain how to make a meadow where you live. On July 18th at 10 am there will be a grassland field trip beginning at the Arcadia Dunes Grassland on Keillor Road. Come to see the beauty of the prairie. Finally, Zimmerman’s documentary, Hometown Habitat: Stories of Bringing Nature Home will be screened at the Garden Theater in Frankfort at 3 pm on July 18th with filmmaker Q & A.
Catherine Zimmerman is being hosted by Plant it Wild with support from Four Season Nursery, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and Watervale Inn. All of Plant it Wild programs and field trips are free and open to the public. Memberships and donations fund our work. For more information contact Plant it Wild on Facebook at PIW-Plant It Wild or on the web at plantitwild.net.
Michigan DNR, Large Grasslands
Urban and Suburban Meadows, Catherine Zimmerman