Wildlife Driven Design

Our native butterfly sage is buzzing with bees and swirling with butterflies. Four mockingbirds take turns feeding on the red berries, and two brown thrashers sift through the leaf litter for insects - all within view from our patio.

Flowers and fruits are important for wildlife, yet insects and spiders are the main diet of young, growing birds. Many species of native insects eat the leaves, buds and seeds of our native plants, while only a few have gotten past the chemical defenses of introduced exotics. Thousands of caterpillars and other insects and spiders are hiding in most large native trees. During the nesting season, it is important to have these trees so as to supply the insect food for our next generation of birds. Insects contain more protein than beef does.

Exotic plants are sold as pest-free. This sounds great to most people - until we realize that "pest-free" means that the plant arrived here without any of the insects that feed on it back home. Even if a pest is accidentally imported, like the ficus whitefly, it becomes a serious pest because it has arrived without any of its natural predators. These insects are not eaten by our birds, either.

With caterpillars, grasshoppers, stinkbugs and other insects eating your native plants, you would think that they would be ripped to shreds and become ugly. Yet it is rare to notice even 10 percent damage to the leaves of a plant. In fact, the damage is usually much less. The imported weevils from Asia are probably what you are noticing scalloping the edges of your plants' leaves. When planting for wildlife, consider plants that actually attract a few "pests." Oaks, maples, pines, Florida elm, sweetgum, gumbo limbo, wild tamarind and redbay are just a few trees that are loaded with insects and attract many birds seeking food for their young.

Songbird populations are declining at the rate of 1 percent a year and have already plummeted 50 percent since the 1960s. This is because our lawns have replaced their natural habitat. The good news is that the damage is reversible. We have more than 40 million acres of lawns in the United States - or eight New Jerseys - that could be returned to forest. Most of our natural areas are small islands. It is possible to connect these preserves with one another by installing the same species of plants in our yards. Then, birds and other wildlife could move about and spread their genes to new populations, thus eliminating the problems caused by in-breeding.

Brown Thrasher
Visit a local natural area, make a note of what grows there, and decide which species you like. Go home and try a few trees. Later, blend in native shrubs and wildflowers. When you notice that birds are using your yard, you will become hooked and never look back to the lawn you left behind.

Carl Terwilliger
Meadow Beauty Nursery

Editor's note: This article, first appearing in the Palm Beach Post last fall, seemed to be a natural companion to our ongoing contest for Craig Huegel's book, Native Plant Landscaping for Florida. Remember, the contest is going on till December 2nd so you still have time to comment, here, or on our Facebook page. Find our Facebook page @ Florida Native Plant Society. The comments will be drawn at random, and U of Florida has given us two copies to give away.

Carl's new website  is featuring some great landscape 'before and after' slideshows.


Comments

Elizabeth Smith said…
The description of the scene from your patio was great! It always amazes me to see the amount of life that the right native plant or tree can attract.

Your commentary on plant damage was interesting - I hadn't realized that people buy plants specifically to avoid pests. To me, a few chewed leaves just comes with the territory, so to speak. My mother was an organic gardener, and I guess she raised me right!

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