Native plants are those that occur naturally in an area. They have co-evolved for thousands of years along with other native plants and animals to survive in a particular geographic area’s climate, soils, and rainfall. Because they are indigenous to our region, Arkansas’s native plants usually tolerate natural cycles of drought and rain and have myriad specialized relationships with native wildlife, serving an important role in the local ecosystem.
Our native birds and other wildlife have adapted to the resources provided by Arkansas’s native plants. The plants provide the leaves, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds, and nuts that wildlife require to survive and thrive. Crucially, native plants host the insects that birds need. Ninety percent of all insects are specialized, meaning they share an evolutionary history with a comparatively few native plants and rely on them to survive. For example, Monarch butterflies must have milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. And Monarch caterpillars must have milkweed plants to eat. If a yard has no milkweeds, it will have no Monarch caterpillars. (Loss of milkweed plants is the main reason Monarch populations are declining so precipitously.)
Almost all land birds require insects to feed their young. Even seed-eating birds, such as Northern Cardinals and Carolina Chickadees, feed their babies insects to ensure their survival. Most insects cannot adapt to eating non-native plants. Fewer native plants results in fewer insects, which in turn means fewer baby birds growing to adulthood. It takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed a brood of baby chickadees to the point where they leave the nest!
In contrast, lawns typically contain only one or very few types of non-native grasses that most animals do not consume, so they do not provide much value for wildlife. Lawns also require a lot of water, chemicals, and mowing to maintain. Replacing lawns with native grasses, wildflowers, bushes, and trees provides the food, shelter, and cover that help maintain healthy, natural ecosystems.
Not all non-native, ornamental plants are bad for wildlife. Some even provide pollen and nectar. However, others are highly invasive, vigorously growing and spreading, escaping from gardens, and displacing native plants in both urban and natural areas. These should be removed and kept at bay to the best of your ability. Chinese privet, Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese wisteria, nandina/sacred bamboo, Bradford pear, and Johnsongrass are among the worst. Herbicides can be a valuable tool for removing invasives but only when used properly.