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Selected Podpieces


What makes a gardener fall in love with native plants? For me, the explanation’s simple: native animals. There’s nothing I like more than seeing a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering at the crossvine, grey squirrels collecting acorns or a praying mantis lurking in the clematis. And the more native plants you have, the more native animals will come to call.

A few years ago we moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to the edge of a small town. Woods and fields and orchards surround the neighborhood, but the house we bought was marooned in an acre of grass decorated with boxwood gumballs. Almost before we’d finished unpacking, we’d covered the naked lawn with wood chips and shredded hardwood. Then we filled the sunniest spots with wildflowers and started planting native trees and shrubs like there was no tomorrow. Amelanchiers, maples, fringe trees, redbuds. Viburnums, hydrangeas, spicebush, beautybush. There are dozens of species of most of these plants, but for the most part we chose ones that are native to the eastern half of the continental United States. Even with that limitation the yard soon came to look – well, full.

But the very first summer brought results. Swallowtail butterflies flitted among the purple coneflowers and liatris. A dozen types of bee bumbled in the bee balm. A pair of chipping sparrows nested in the branches of the American holly, and on one June day a cloud of cedar waxwings stripped the serviceberries of their ripening fruit in fifteen minutes.

Then one morning I came out to find that my prized stand of milkweed – four different varieties – was shredded overnight by caterpillars. I was devastated. I’d ordered those seeds from a nursery that specialized in milkweeds – and they hadn’t even had a chance to bloom.

That’s when the lightbulb went on over my head. Duh! Native animals don’t come to admire native plants; they seek them out to use them! Critters don’t just delicately remove the berries and sip the nectar and carry the seeds away to their underground lairs; they chew up leaves, rip off the bark, and gnaw on roots. Some creatures literally can’t survive without specific families of plants for food, and for shelter too.

True love accommodates the oddities of the beloved, and as my understanding of the role of native plants expanded, I came to appreciate them for more than their good looks and their products. These days I can endure a month of ratty-looking river birches because the aphids need their leaves – and though aphids aren’t high on my list of favorite animals, the goldfinches and the noisy Carolina wren that eat them are. Robins swoop in and devour the holly berries in late October, but so what? Red ribbons work just fine to brighten the evergreens at Christmas.

These days I worry if my milkweeds remain untouched for too long; I find myself hoping that when I step outside I’ll find their naked stalks. After all, the creature devouring the milkweed leaves is a very handsome green and yellow caterpillar who will eventually become a stunning monarch butterfly. And by the time the butterfly is ready to reproduce, the milkweed will have sprouted a new set of leaves where she can lay her eggs, so that another batch of very hungry caterpillars will have their favorite native food for breakfast.
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