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.
Review: The Native Plant Society’s 2017 Annual Conference
Sponsored by the Taos Chapter, the Native Plant Society’s statewide annual conference in Taos last month was kicked off by Thor Hanson, biologist and author of The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses And Pips Conquered The Plant Kingdom And Shaped Human History. Hanson’s book is a collection of seed stories that illustrate the diversity and creativity that these little packages of DNA and fuel leverage in order to procreate. Hanson regaled listeners stories of snake-infested treks in South American jungles for the elusive seed pods of the mighty almendro; a visit to the USDA Seed Bank in Fort Collins where the staff caters to these “spoiled little seed brats,” and how a two-thousand-year-old date palm seed from a Red Sea cache survived to germinate and revive a variety long thought extinct.
Among other speakers during the two-day conference, Melianie Gisler, Director of the Institute of Applied Ecology, Southwest Region, described her team’s progress in securing native grass seed from our region to restore land that has been overgrazed. Because there is no ready supply of local seed, step one is to collect the seed in the wild and then find farmers to grow it out. Taos County farmer and seed saver Miguel Saintestevan was exuberant about the wide variety of wild and ancient varieties he’s been able to preserve and improve upon, each year experimenting with varieties and saving the seeds of the most tasty and sturdy plants for the following year’s crop with the goal of expanding our genetic heritage.
Looking to the future, Julie Etterson, PhD, heads up Project Baseline at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a seed bank designed to be used over the next 50 years for research that employs the “resurrection approach.” This type of research entails growing ancestral seed from the seed bank side-by-side with contemporary seed to directly observe evolutionary change. Duplicate sets of seeds are stored at the USDA seed bank in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
It was not all charts and graphs: Taos local Kate Cisneros, whose family has been collecting pinon seeds for generations, shared stories of competing with other families and the jays as well as amusing techniques for coaxing the seeds to the ground. Then, speaking of jays, John Ubelaker, SMU professor emeritus, hopped and danced around on the dais by way of demonstrating how the pinon seed plays a critical role in the mating ritual of the pinon jay.
Glenna Dean, former NM State Archaeologist, challenged common myths about cotton farming in her talk on the origins of domesticated cotton in New Mexico before 1492. Glenna now grows a cotton variety that is native to northern New Mexico on her land in Abiquiu which, unlike “king cotton” is easy to clean by hand. Survivalists will be glad to know that it is possible to grow, spin, hand dye, and weave cotton fabrics using our own native cotton and native sources of fabric dye.