by Nancy Bauer
We have so many reasons to love our native plants—their beauty, the way they make gardening so easy and so rewarding, how make themselves so at home in our gardens. They are the plants that are thriving without summer water, the ones I don’t have to maintain, and can just enjoy. And they bring a great deal of pleasure to the birds and insects that are also part of my garden landscape.
I am always amazed at the variety of insects that hover around the buckwheats in my garden (Eriogonum latifolium and E. grande var. rubescens). I’ve seen many tiny native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators, plus at least a half dozen of the smaller butterfly species. Buckwheats are also caterpillar food plants for the Acmon Blue, the Blue Copper, and other butterflies.
One of the most sought after nectar plants in my garden from mid-summer into fall is California aster (A. chilensis ‘Pt. St. George’). It gets barely any water at all, forms a low-growing carpet, and blooms for months with small lavender flowers that feed a host of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. In early spring, the whorls of flowers on the native salvias—brandegee sage (S. brandegei), black sage (S. mellifera), and purple sage (S. leucophylla ‘Pt. Sal’)—are a welcome sight to native bees that have just emerged, Anna’s hummingbirds, and the early butterflies. They, too, receive no summer water.
Birds forage not only on seeds and fruit, but on the many insects our California natives attract. One outstanding example is coyote bush (Baccharis piluaris), which attracts over 200 insects, which in turn feed many songbirds, bats, and other creatures. White-crowned sparrows, finches, and other seed-eating birds feast on the seeds, though they too supplement their diet with insects when seeds are in short supply. If you don’t have room for the shrubs, the prostrate form B. pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’ makes a neat bright green carpet only one foot high but up to six feet wide. Plant it in full sun or part shade with occasional water if needed.
Our native milkweeds are not only caterpillar food plants for the monarch butterfly and a nectar source, they also provide seeds for small mammals and birds. Ladybird beetles and the larvae of lacewings and other beneficial insects hunt the orange oleander aphids associated with milkweeds. Two species of beetles and two species of true bugs are milkweed specialists.
Douglas Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home) discovered in his own garden that many of our native insects “cannot or will not use alien plants.” “So many animals depend partially or entirely on insect protein for food,” he points out, “that a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.” Our native plants are not just pretty faces; they, as Tallamy so aptly states, “have the critical role of sustaining, directly or indirectly, all of the animals with which we share our living spaces.”
Nancy Bauer is a wildlife habitat gardener and author of The California Wildlife Habitat Garden (UC Press, 2012) and The Habitat Garden Book: Wildlife Landscaping for the San Francisco Bay Region (2001, 2008). She has been teaching and writing about wildlife habitat gardens for over 10 years.