Woody Plants- Beyond the Pretty Colors
How often do you pause and think about the green around us? The amazingly beautiful trees, shrubs and diverse ground covers are really the lifeblood of the Earth. We were taught this in elementary school, but now we are so busy, we just don’t give it much thought. It is so easy to take plants for granted, we seldom acknowledge the full extent to which they benefit and provide us with life. Way back, we learned that plants produce the oxygen that we need to breathe and most often produce the critical foundations for entire food webs.
In an ecological community, organisms evolve and develop relationships that allow for the exchange of energy. These relationships allow organisms incapable of photosynthesis, to access energy from the sun. Plants occupy the first step or “trophic level” of the food web.
As producers, plants are the only organisms capable of capturing the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, making it available to primary consumers or “herbivores.” Probably our most common herbivores in Minnesota are deer, rabbits, and a multitude of insect species. Also, some scientists believe that humans are actually natural herbivores (we will leave this for another e-newsletter).
If you think about it, ecological restoration is a balancing act, and the ecology lessons learned in school come into play. How do we create the foundation of a solid food web? How many native plant species can we introduce? Do we have the space to introduce woody plant species? Will our neighborhood accept it? Is this a good investment? Am I really helping ecological systems? What species will I attract and support?
In conducting our ecological restoration projects, we often focus on establishing native herbaceous (ground cover) vegetation along lakeshores, wetlands, and woodland ground cover. It’s definitely our pleasure when our clients request habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. This is becoming quite common. One of our customers even mentioned that the goldenrod genus (Solidago) provides food and habitat over 100 moth and butterfly species.
When possible, we certainly try to maximize our native plant diversity, which in turn promotes our native beneficial insect diversity.
Most of our projects center on residential sites where open space and views are at a premium. We are often limited by the amount of real estate that we have to restore. However, when the opportunity presents itself, we definitely try to work in native woody plants to our restoration designs. Trees and shrubs provide food, but also excellent habitat for beneficial insects. For instance, research has found that the oak tree genus (Quercus) supports over 530 moth and butterfly species!
So what happens to our beneficial insects on land covered with woody non-native invasive plant species, like buckthorn or tartarian honeysuckle? Well generally, these plant species are less desirable to native insects, and thus, provide poor habitat. You may have even noticed that invasive plant species in your yard or a nearby park lacking insect foraging damage. This has to do with the chemical composition of the leaves being a bit different, and just not that good of a food source for our native insect species.
Besides the plethora of ecosystem benefits, trees and shrubs provide many social, public health, and economic benefits. Our native trees and shrubs look amazing, but studies have shown that woodies can reduce stress and fatigue, decrease recovery time from surgery/illness, and actually lower crime levels in urban environments. Additionally, trees alter the environment we live in, providing benefits of moderated temperatures, improved air quality, and reduced storm water runoff. Trees can also increase property values in urban and residential areas, providing both direct and indirect economic benefits.
So let’s put it in a nutshell. A diversity of native plants should certainly be one of your top your ecological restoration goals. If you have the space, it’s definitely worth considering the introduction of native trees and shrubs – the benefits are off the charts. Depending on soil, sun, and moisture conditions, there are many options for native trees; from maples and oaks to conifers such as pines and spruces. We have dozens of native shrub options in Minnesota, which include high-bush cranberry, chokecherry, red-osier dogwood, and low-bush honeysuckle.
If you need help with your woody plant selection, please feel free to consult our experts at Natural Shore. We are here to help!
Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 2009. Print.