ANNA, Ill. – Native plants create or break food webs.
“About 90% of insect larvae will only eat plants that they have co-evolved,” said Erin Garrett, University of Illinois energy and environmental stewardship educator in the County of Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski and Union.
“Insects are the next level in the food chain above plants and they do a lot of hard work turning not-so-easily-digestible plant material into much easier-to-digest food bites that are themselves to swallow. by birds and amphibians, ”Garrett said. during a webinar hosted by the U of I extension.
However, Garrett said, not all native plants are created equal.
“Only about 5% of our native plants will provide 75% of the food of the caterpillars,” she said.
Research shows that woody plants like trees and shrubs support the greatest diversity of caterpillars, Garrett said.
“Oaks can support over 500 species of caterpillars in North America,” Garrett said.
“One of the most important roles of plants in a shade garden is that they provide a safe haven for caterpillars to pupate under trees, so caterpillars will fall from trees and rely on leaf litter or leaf litter. vegetation cover to complete their life cycle, ”she said. . “A lawn is not the safest place for them, but the native plants under the trees provide undisturbed habitat for the caterpillars. “
For the ecological purpose of gardens, not only do native plants provide habitat for insects, birds or wildlife, as well as food, the garden can also help with water filtration.
“And some plants are really great at storing nutrients and releasing them later in the year,” Garrett said. “It’s not just about the direct impact. It is also about providing good habitat and enhancing ecosystem services.
Garrett encourages gardeners to create gardens that mimic what they see in nature, with different layers of plants structured around each other.
The three categories include structural plants such as trees and shrubs, ground cover plantings with sedges, ferns and grasses, and seasonal plants which include wildflowers and ephemeral plants.
Native plants can be planted by seed, bare root or root ball.
“Seeds are the cheapest and least reliable way to start native plants because many species are difficult to start from seed,” Garrett said. “Bare roots and clods are a much faster way to start a garden. “
Plants will thrive in varying amounts of shade. Light shade is an area that receives three to five hours of direct sunlight in the summer, partial shade is two hours of direct sun or shade for more than half a day, and full shade is less than an hour of direct sun.
Garrett has identified several plants for gardeners to consider in their shade gardens, starting with structural plants.
“Redbud is a small tree that grows 12 to 30 feet tall and is a very popular landscape tree because of the flowers that emerge in the spring,” she said. “The flowers are followed by heart-shaped leaves and pods that support 22 species of caterpillars.”
The flowering dogwood does well in partial shade to full sun and the flowers are replaced with green foliage.
“The leaves have a sharp tip and it’s a very amazing foliage that supports over 100 species of caterpillars,” Garrett said.
Serviceberry grows well on loamy, sandy or rocky soils and it will flower before it has leaves.
“This tree is home to 91 species of caterpillars and the fruit is eaten by birds, including the Baltimore oriole,” Garrett said.
For shrubs, Garrett said, the spicebush grows 6 to 8 feet tall and is not preferred by deer.
“It has beautiful yellow flowers, the leaves turn yellow in the fall and it produces bright red berries,” she said.
Holly Winterberry is a popular landscape plant and there are separate male and female plants.
“Buy at least two for the chance to have berries,” Garrett helps. “This shrub is home to 41 species of caterpillars and is pollinated by bees.”
Since seasonal plants die to the ground in summer, Garrett said, gardeners should sprinkle them with ground cover plants and other wildflowers that retain their foliage throughout the season.
“The beauty of spring is one of the first mayflies to start flowering and they prefer light to full shade, but I grew them in my lawn in full sun,” she said. “The foliage will die off in mid-summer, but they are a very important food source for early foraging insects. “
Flower Window is short for Bloodroot. The flowers of this plant emerge with a small leaf wrapped under the flower and after flowering the leaves continue to grow and can grow to at least 6 inches in diameter.
“Blood root is resistant to deer because it contains a poisonous, reddish juice inside the stems and roots,” Garrett said. “The seeds have an oily body on them which is very nutritious and delicious for the ants, so they eat the oily body and throw away the seeds that plant the Bloodroot in a new location.”
White and yellow trout lily plants have spread over time to form colonies; however, it takes patience.
“It takes them at least seven years to mature enough to flower,” Garrett said. “They are mature enough to flower when they develop two leaves. “
Wildflower blue cohosh produces unique green flowers that will be replaced by blue berries.
“The berries are not edible for humans, but the birds will eat them and spread the seeds,” Garrett said.
The Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod has arching stems and flower clusters. These plants prefer partial to full sun and will flower from August through October.
“They are deer resistant and can support 112 species of caterpillars,” Garrett said. “Plants are also visited by wasps and flies, and the seeds can be eaten by some birds. “
The Seal of Solomon can grow in any light from full sun to full shade, and it arches to the side with flowers hanging below the arching leaves.
“This plant spreads to form colonies and the leaves will turn a golden color in the fall,” Garrett said.
“If you are looking for an alternative to hostas, ferns are a great choice,” she said. “The Christmas fern is one of my favorites because it stays green all year round and is deer resistant.”
Gardeners often overlook sedges which are a great option for ground cover.
“There are a lot of different sedges available,” Garrett said. “The Pennsylvania sedge does well in drier soil and can grow 3-8 inches per year, so it can be divided.”
When gardeners add native plants, Garrett said, it doesn’t mean they have to pull out all the plants they currently have growing.
“You can have an impact and provide ecosystem services and habitat by retaining some of your existing plants and adding native plants,” she said.