Sustaining Biodiversity, One Yard at a Time

When the United Nations observed this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, its theme—Our Solutions Are in Nature—highlighted humanity’s dependence on vibrant ecosystems for our health, water, food, and other needs. It further emphasized the importance of working together at all levels to stem the loss of species diversity and “to build a future of life in harmony with nature.”

As Professor Douglas Tallamy observes in his latest book, Nature’s Best Hope, we can all help achieve that future in each of our yards and gardens. By scaling back turfgrass lawns—totaling some 40 million acres across the United States—and by crafting home landscapes abundant in herbaceous and woody native plant species, we can establish conservation corridors between now-fragmented habitats that “sustainably support entire lifecycles of local diversity.”

Native plants, he explains, are essential to these interlinked corridors. Why? It’s all about the food web.

Insect herbivores rely on plants for their diets. Other animals, particularly birds, rely on these insects as an energy-rich source of food. But insects “are very fussy about which plants they eat,” Professor Tallamy points out. A notable example is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars depend almost solely on milkweeds (genus Asclepias) as their food supply. No milkweeds, no monarchs. Such specialized relationships have evolved between a host of other insects and native plants. Consequently, native plants support pollinators and food webs far better than the non-native ornamentals that occupy so much space in our yards and gardens. And some native plants, notes Tallamy, support much more life than others.

For the Charlottesville area, there are multiple resources posted on our website that will help you identify native plants in our area and learn how to use them in the landscape. These include Albemarle County’s database of local native plant species, as well as a brochure published by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Also check out the newly reprinted Piedmont Native Plants: A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens, covering more than 200 species. The Virginia Native Plant Society offers a list of nurseries that sell natives.

Professor Tallamy was all set to share his vision for conservation action in Charlottesville as part of the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ Spring Lecture Series, but like many public events, his talk had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to a time when he can return to our community and inspire us to do our part “to build a future of life in harmony with nature.”

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