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Connolly: Use native plants to keep nature’s dance going

It's been a long time since I was first surprised by a large prickly pear cactus in an Old Lyme woodland.

To my amazement, a botanist friend told me this spiny succulent, so much associated with dry southwestern scenes, is a southern New England native. More surprises followed. We have native orchids and even native carnivorous plants in the area, for instance. Those were great bits of trivia for an evolving plant geek.

But is the study of native plants just a trivial pursuit? Apparently not, because in the years since my own awakening native plants have become a hot topic among gardeners and horticulturalists.

According to botanist Elizabeth Farnsworth, a senior scientist at the New England Wild Flower Society, "native" designation is based on evidence that a species was on the New England landscape prior to Colonial settlement. Colonists imported both plants and animals native to Europe and that made swift changes to regional flora.

That would simply be a point of historical curiosity if it weren't for research that shows critical roles of native plants in the regional web of life. They are like longtime dance partners to the insects, birds and other creatures also native to an area - they flow together.

When a native plant becomes scarce, life becomes more difficult if not impossible for the insects, birds and even mammals that rely upon it. (Think of dwindling stands of wild rice in the Connecticut River and the impact on migrating water fowl.) Leaf for leaf, a single native plant, shrub or tree often supports as many as 10 times the number of insect and bird species as non-natives in the same geographic area.

Why we care

Still, why should we care? In human-centric terms, the single most obvious reason is their importance to pollinators and other beneficial insects and - by extension - to our farms and gardens. The problems of pollinators have been making mainstream news for several years.

A widely read book on this subject is "Bringing Nature Home," (Timber Press, 2009) by University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy. He shows the importance of native plants in the mix of life and provides lists of regional natives for the home gardener. In fact, he believes that the land around our homes, businesses and community spaces may be the last best hope for native plants. Open spaces that once lazily hosted the slow evolution of local plant and insect communities have either disappeared or are now also occupied by nonnative invasive species. Our backyards, unlike forests and parks, are under our personal control.

You may, in fact, already host a collection of Connecticut native plants. Local nursery owner Petie Reed of Perennial Harmony Nursery in Waterford offers a list of 10 natives that "are hiding in plain sight."

Her list includes: black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta; blue flag iris, Iris versicolor; blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum and Vaccinium angustifolium; butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa; columbine, Aquilegia canadensis; gayfeather, Liatris spicata; New England aster, Aster novae-angliae; pussywillow, Salix discolor; red-twig dogwood, Cornus sericea; and winterberry, Ilex verticillata.

"These plants are as tough as plants get," said Reed. Many gardeners find that native plants, once established, require little maintenance.

If you'd like to research whether your landscape plants are native, try out the New England Wildflower Society's "Go Botany" database at www.gobotany.newenglandwild.org.

Ready for an authoritative list of Connecticut natives? Check out the Connecticut Botanical Society's "Gardening with Native Plants" at www.ct-botanical-society.org/

KATHY CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND FREQUENT SPEAKER ON LANDSCAPE-RELATED TOPICS. VISIT HER WEBSITE AT WWW.SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM OR EMAIL HER AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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