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Native Landscapes & Wildlife habitats

Vernal Pools are a native ecosystem dominated by native plants (photo by Eva Butler)

“Exotic landscapes have proven to be a very expensive ecologic and economic symbol because they require life support. One has to alter the environment for them to survive. And life support isn't cheap – it requires pesticides, fertilizers, and water.”

A typical U.S. lawn, one-third of an acre in size, receives as much as 10 pounds of pesticides, 20 pounds of fertilizer, and 170,000 gallons of water annually. What's more, in one year a homeowner could spend the equivalent of a 40-hour workweek simply mowing that lawn (producing pollution equal to that created by driving a car 14,000 miles) plus hundreds of dollars caring for it.”  [Source: Bret Rappaport, the director of Wild Ones, a nonprofit organization that encourages landscaping with native plants]

We couldn’t agree more!! If we are serious about saving our environment, Californians (in fact, all of us) need to rethink the concept of “landscaping.”

Check out the articles and organizations below. You’ll see that “going native” offers amazing benefits – and it’s so easy to do!

What is a Native Plant?

Our native plants grew here prior to European contact. California's native plants evolved here over a very long period, and are the plants which the first Californians knew and depended on for their livelihood. These plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi and microbes, to form a complex network of relationships. They are the foundation of our native ecosystems, or natural communities.

How do we know which plants are native?
Specimens, seeds and drawings of new world plants were taken to Europe by early explorers over many years. Thus, American plants were included in ongoing botanical studies of the world's flora. Also, the science of paleobotany allows scientists to compare fossil records with modern plants to understand which plants are native to an area.

Are native plants important?
Plants are a cornerstone of biological diversity. Native plants do the best job of providing food and shelter for native wild animals. Native plants are used in the development of new foods, medicines and industrial products. Commercial strawberries were developed using our coast strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, and pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, yielded Taxol, an anti-cancer drug. Native plants are also an essential element in the natural beauty for which California is famous.

Are non-native plants harmful?
Non-native plants such as forget-me-nots and English daisies are widespread, yet fairly harmless. But others take over natural areas and smother native plants. They can do this because the natural pests, foraging animals, diseases or weather conditions which kept the plants in check in their homeland are absent here. These weeds deprive our wild animals of food and shelter. Many weeds belong to the grass, pea and daisy families, with jubata and pampas grass, broom, and Cape ivy as well known problems.

Scotchbroom (Cytisus scoparius) excludes native plants and animals in many locations (photo by Brother Alfred Brousseau)

Source: California Native Plant Society




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Why California Native Plants?

Incorporating California native flora into your landscape is a superior alternative to hybrids, or non- natives alone. The use of California native plants in a backyard or home landscape is one of the most important trends in environmental horticulture today. The benefits of using native plants are substantial:

1.Lower cost, less labor
Native plants are more easily established than typical horticultural varieties and they are self- renewing. They require less care once established, resulting in significantly lower maintenance costs. Weed control is minimal, and pruning is reduced dramatically. Natives simply grow to their mature size rather than spread continuously. They are not dependent on pesticides or inorganic fertilizers which significantly reduces the chemicals introduced into the environment. Soil preparation for natives is usually minimal. Since they are adapted to California’s arid climate (not typical garden conditions) natives do not require much irrigation once established. This can save thousands of gallons of water annually while allowing you more time to enjoy your landscape instead of constantly maintaining it.

2. Enhanced wildlife diversity and abundance
Native plants provide the best diversity of habitat elements for wildlife. Wildlife in your area have evolved coincidentally with native plants which they use as food, cover, places to raise young, and sometimes even for water. Native plants will thrive in their natural site because they are best suited to the conditions of that site. Plants native to the soils and climate of your specific area provide the best overall food sources for wildlife and may support 10 to 50 times as many species of native wildlife as non-native plants.

3. They make ecological sense!
Native plants not only attract and support human-appreciated animals such as birds and butterflies, but just as important are the insects above and below ground that thrive naturally within a native plant ecology. Natives are better able to defend against disease and insect pests (indeed they host critters that keep insects in check). This attribute is further enhanced by plant or habitat diversity, significantly reducing, even eliminating the need for pesticides. All native insects are subject to parasites, so rarely does an explosion of any particular species occur. At a higher trophic level small mammals return, then more owls, etc.

What is a Habitat Structure?
Habitat Structures are an excellent means of extending habitat diversity in your native landcape by providing specific habitat values beyond vegetation alone. These include sources of water such as ephemeral streams and ponds as well as terrestrial features such as nest boxes, raptor perches, rock outcrops and basking logs. Habitat structures are very effective at attracting wildlife, so they offer additional and unique viewing opportunities year round.

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Plants to Avoid/Remove

You might think that every plant at your local nursery is appropriate for your home landscape. Unfortunately, that is not true. The following plants have some nasty side effects. Seeds and shoots easily travel into wild places and wreak havoc.

Perhaps this list can help guide your landscape decisions to avoid these "invasive" plants and help keep our natural areas in better condition. Ask at your local nursery for suggestions on replacing these “bad” plants with native species that are equally attractive – with more wildlife benefits – AND that perfectly fit our ecosystem.


Flowering Plants and Shrubs to Remove

Common Name(s) Scientific Name Some of the problems caused in natural areas
Giant Reed, Arundo Arundo donax Prolific, tall along streams. Sucks up water. Negative habitat value
Yellow Starthistle Centaurea solstitialis Displaces native plants and animals, depletes soil moisture
Himelaya Blackberry Rubus discolor Dense thickets displace plants, block wildlife access to water
Saltcedar, Tamarisk Tamarix (species) Changes ecosystems by consuming water supply, a fire hazard
Gorse Ulex europaea Creates barriers to wildlife, dominates, is susceptible to wildfires

Grasses to Remove

Common Name(s) Scientific Name Some of the problems caused in natural areas
Cheat grass Bromus tectorum Out-competes natives, dries soil and dies early. Fire hazard.
Medusahead Elymus caput-medisae Crowds out native species with a thick, dry, combustible thatch

Trees to Remove

Common Name(s) Scientific Name Some of the problems caused in natural areas
Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima Thickets displace natives in damp areas, riverbanks and roadsides
Russian Olive Eleagnus angustifolia Once used for windbreaks, will dominate riverbank forests
Common Eucalyptus Eucalyptus globulus Poor nesting environment for birds; fire hazard; no understory
Edible Fig Ficus carica Competitive. Abundant seeds can make thickets along streams
Maidenhair Tree Sesbania punicaea Abundant seeds, rapid growth lead to dense streamside thickets

Water Plants to Remove

Common Name(s) Scientific Name Some of the problems caused in natural areas
Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria One of the most problematic invasives across the United States.
Creeping Waterprimrose Ludwigia peploides Yellow-flowered aquatic weed that infests ponds and waterways.

Note that this list is not complete. Any non-native plant has the potential to be invasive in certain ecosystems.
For more about invasives, see Invasive Plants of California Wildlands, University of Calif. Press, 2000. A good web source is tncweeds.ucdavis.edu.


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Vernal Pools are a native ecosystem dominated by native plants (photo by Eva Butler)

What is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?

It's a backyard, property or even just a patio that provides birds, butterflies, and other wild creatures a place to call home. It's a little more work than just hanging a feeder up but well worth it. As communities grow and develop, the homes of birds, insects, and other wild creatures are lost. You can help by providing a new place for them to call their own.


What do you have to provide?
Water is essential for life, and your backyard friends are not exceptions.
A small pond, a bird bath, or even a shallow pan of water are much appreciated. Or perhaps you have a stream behind your house already. Misters are also good for the tiny butterflies, bees, and other insects as well as the small birds. What do you have? What more can you provide?

Different types of critters obviously need different types of food. Look at the trees, bushes and shrubs that you have in your yard. Do they provide seeds, berries, fruits or nuts? What about plants, flowers and vines that provide seeds and nectar. Do you let your roses form rosehips? Birds love them. Can you plant another bush or tree? What about some sunflowers at the back of your garden or a Trumpet Vine on your fence with its gorgeous flowers and abundant nectar?

Shelter or cover is also essential. Think about it. Would YOU like to be out in the middle of a street without any protection? No, and neither do the birds and other creatures. They need somewhere to hide from predators, a place to nestle down at night, a place safe. And you need several areas of cover - you're going to attract many different species of animals and insects. An pair of Northern Cardinals are not going to choose the same tree as the Screech Owl.

Bushes and trees will also be used as nesting places during the spring and summer. Remember that many species are very territorial especially during this time. Again, the need for multiple sources of cover. Can you add another bush? What about that tree you've always wanted?

Vernal Pools are a native ecosystem dominated by native plants (photo by Eva Butler)

Ideas for cover include trees especially evergreens like hollies and pines. Dense shrubs are wonderful. And remember the insect population with rocks and logs.

[Source:  Christine Tarski, Your Guide to Birding / Wild Birds]


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Getting Your Habitat Certified

Do you enjoy the birds in the trees, the butterflies flitting from flowers? Does your yard have bushes, trees, and flowers that provide seeds, berries, fruits, nectar for them? Is there a source of water for a thirsty bird? Are there nesting places and a place to roost at night? Then you might want to look into registering your backyard habitat.

There are a number of different organizations that I've found, and each has different requirements. Check all of them out and see which one works best for you.

The National Wildlife Federation has the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program. Check here to get more information about what you need to provide as well as to get the application. Once your backyard is certified, they send you a very nice certificate. You can also order a nice sign that you can post in the backyard if you want.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has a Wildscape Program. This program goes a bit further and requires you use a certain percentage of native plants. Click here for information about how to plan your Wildscape as well as how to order the Wildscape packet that includes the basic information and excellent reference materials.

Additionally, many other states have programs for individuals. Call or write your state's wildlife area. Some states also have programs for businesses to join in, turning their unused property into new homes for wildlife.

[Source:  Christine Tarski, Your Guide to Birding / Wild Birds]

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