Gardening With Native Plants
Non-native plants commonly found in our gardens don’t attract and support the lifecycle of our native insect and pollinator population. Native plants and native insects have co-evolved over thousands of years to support one another. Our native insects have not had time to co-evolve with European and Asian plant species that many gardeners place in their gardens. Functional ecosystems are dependent on insects. “Without insects, the whole system collapses,” Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, said in a recent interview. “Eighty percent of plants rely on pollinators; 96% of birds eat and feed their young insects, of which most are caterpillars. Many mammals rely on insects as a major part of their diet.”
“Ninety percent of lepidopteras (butterflies) are host-specific—by genus, not necessarily to the level of species. Take the Monarch for example: The population is down 90% today,” Tallamy went on. “Unless you want the monarch to disappear completely, we need to plant milkweed. They are attracted to all species in the milkweed family.” That is something we can do today that will make a difference.
Bird, bees butterflies, flies, beetles, hummingbirds, small mammals, and even the wind play key roles as pollinators in plant reproduction by transferring the genetic material from flower to flower. Sadly, as the habitats many of these creatures depend on disappear, so do our pollinator populations. This is bad news for biodiversity, our planet’s ecosystem, and even our human food supply. As much as a third of our food crops rely on the work of pollinators.
Native Pollinators Rely on Native Plants
Plants and their pollinators are co-dependent: Plants are stationary and need pollinators to transport their pollen to other plants for sexual reproduction. Pollinators visit flowers in order to get food in the form of pollen, nectar, oils, resin, or wax, and in the process, unwittingly transfer pollen in their travels to other flowers for another feast.
Flowers have evolved an amazing array of scents, colors, markings, and shapes that make them attractive to specific pollinators. Moth-pollinated flowers such as yucca tend to be highly scented, often only opening or releasing its scent at night to attract the night-flying moths. Three leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) smells like rotten meat to attract flies as their pollinators.
Co-evolution of Native Plants and Their Pollinators
To facilitate the transfer of pollen to the pollinator, some plants have evolved physical barriers that restrict the access to their nectar to one specific type or species of pollinator. For example, trumpet-shaped flowers favor the extended beak of the hummingbird and position their pollen to be deposited on the birds’ heads. A special petal on lupine flowers acts as a trapdoor, limiting access to all but the heaviest of insects, the bumblebees. Hedgehog cactus nectar is located at the base of the petals and bees need to swim down into the anthers in order to get the nectar.
New Mexico has the third-highest number of native pollinators. Native pollinators NEED native plants. Gardeners can restore disturbed habitat and prevent native plants from being overtaken by non-natives by including a wide variety of native wildflowers, shrubs, grasses, cacti and succulents, and trees in our gardens. By planting natives, we can make a difference that will support our pollinator population and preserve our region’s biodiversity. Visit Native Plant Society of New Mexico NPSNM.org for a comprehensive list of native plants.