The buzz on native plants

Published 9:47 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2016

By Susan and Biff Andrews

As we have mentioned in several of our articles, lawns are barren wastelands in terms of supporting wildlife — biological deserts. Spring is upon us, and we bring this topic up again, because the birdies need our help — and your help, too.

Many birds are beginning to nest and raise their young now. Although we put out feeders with the best of intentions, which adult birds enjoy immensely, the larger problem is that baby birds can’t eat seeds until they are ready to fledge. They need protein, which they can only get in the form of insects.

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Bird populations are getting smaller and smaller because of a lack of food and shelter to raise their young. Unfortunately non-native plants that you pick up at your local big box store that add to your home’s curb appeal do nothing to support your local wildlife. Thus we have a big dilemma.

A black-capped chickadee feeds its baby one caterpillar approximately every 3 minutes for the entire time it is in the nest. The babies stay in the nest for about 16 days. Chickadees can raise two broods a year. That’s a lot of caterpillars!

A leading biologist observed a chickadee picking hundreds of caterpillars off an oak tree. Out of curiosity, he wandered over to a Bradford pear, looked carefully and counted only one caterpillar on the entire tree. The difference? Oaks are a native species and the Bradford pears are not.

Through millions of years, bugs have developed a preference for local fare. Insects prefer certain species of native plants to lay their eggs on. Monarch butterflies love milkweed, for example. But pesticides and herbicides are decimating the monarchs and the milkweed they lay eggs on. A major drop in monarch population ensues.

The native local insects don’t even recognize the imported big box beauties as a food source and stay away from them, which, aside from being “eye candy,” is another reason why many gardeners love ‘em. Funny how we love the stuff that isn’t good for us.

Let’s discuss native plants and pollinators and why they’re good for you and your yard.

Pollen spreads from one flower or tree or bush to another by many means. Wind pollinates corn and wheat, and some birds and mammals are pollinators, but the bulk of the work falls to insects — different types of flies, moths and butterflies, but above all bees.

There are roughly 22,000 species of bees; the honeybee is the best known but it is non-native. The bulk of the world’s flowering plants and crops depends on insect pollination. Half of our food, including fruits and veggies, depends on bees.

So what to do? Give careful consideration to what goes into and comes out of your home’s outside habitat. Many native choices will support wildlife of all types and are just as visually impressive as the exotic non-native big box offerings that are just ornamental.

Make informed decisions about plant purchases that support different types of insects, birds and other wildlife. You’ll get a lot more for your money in terms of attracting beauty and life into your world.

The Virginia Native Plant Society,


, is a good place to start your education. For more information about creating a native plant and animal habitat in your yard visit, a user-friendly list of native plants that are specific to our area and tips for creating a native habitat in your yard.

After you have done all this hard work, reward yourself — certify your yard or school yard with the National Wildlife Federation and become a member of the million-pollinator challenge at

You really can make a difference.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at