By Nancy Peterson
On March 25, in a unanimous bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating April 2021 as National Native Plant Month. Although the month is behind us, it’s not too late to get behind the resolution.
So, what’s a native plant? A Colorado native plant is defined as a plant that existed in our state before European settlement. Today in Colorado, native plants are important because most require little irrigation and less mowing and bloom without fertilizers and pesticides. If that weren’t enough, native plants can provide shelter and food for birds who make our town their home year-round, as well as those moving in to breed and others migrating through in spring and fall. In addition, native plants provide nectar and pollen for pollinators.
Where would we be without our pollinators — ants, bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, birds, hummingbirds and moths? Unfortunately, pollinators are declining due to habitat loss, introduction and spread of invasive plants, disease and misuse of pesticides. These factors not only threaten their lives, they threaten us as well. That’s because about 80% of all flowering plants and over 75% of the staple crop plants we eat depend on pollinators.
The indigenous Ute were intimately connected to Colorado’s diverse plants, animals and habitats. As the Ute knew, native plants weren’t only beautiful to behold, they were also useful. Not far from Carbondale, you can visit the ethnobotany garden at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. The garden focuses on the Ute’s knowledge of native plants for plant classification, cultivation and use as food, medicine and shelter.
In the time of the Utes, lawns were unknown. Now, 56 million Americans mow an area eight times the size of New Jersey each week and burn 800 million gallons of gasoline annually using mowers and weed-whackers. These actions contribute to the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled annually to refuel lawn equipment. Further, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns annually and 10 times more pesticides are used per acre on our lawns than farmers use on crops. Pesticides transported by runoff and wind pollute streams and wetlands miles away.
The good news is that with thoughtful plant, shrub and tree choices, your property, planned garden or container planter can provide seeds, insects, shelter and nesting sites for birds. In North America, 96% of all terrestrial bird species feed insects to their young; native birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them. When you plant exotic species with leaves that aren’t palatable to native insects and caterpillars, you eliminate an important food source for birds.
When you plant native flowering perennials, you also save time and money. Perennial plants persist for many growing seasons because the top portion usually dies back each winter and regrows the following spring from the same root system. When you plant native ornamental grasses, you create visual beauty year-round. If you don’t cut back some types of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses in the fall, they will provide food for songbirds during winter. Good flowering perennial choices include seed-bearing plants such as Purple Coneflower, Hummingbird Mint, Lavender and perennial Sunflower; good ornamental grass choices include Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, Karl Foerster and Prairie Dropseed.
When you purchase plants, make sure they are free of neonicotinoids. These pesticides harm or kill pollinators. Even if plants are labeled as “pollinator plants,” find out if the plants have been treated with neonicotinoids by asking a salesperson or looking at the plant labels. Avoid spraying plants in your garden with insecticides, and never spray the flowers.
By using the National Audubon Society’s Native Plant Database, you can easily identify appropriate plants for your garden. And, If you’re participating in Carbondale’s Potted Plants on Main event in May and June, please consider native plants.
It’s been three years since my sister and I moved to Hendrick Ranch and built our house on an empty lot. We had the property professionally landscaped with plants, shrubs and trees that would be attractive and beneficial to birds, bees, butterflies and bugs and not attractive to munching deer. We’re proud that our property recently received Habitat Hero Garden status from Audubon Rockies. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by, say hello and admire our garden paradise at 905 Melissa Lane. We hope you’ll be inspired!