Native plant species support local ecologies

A RARE SIGHT: Prairie Smoke, a native plant, is threatened in the state of Michigan. Native plants are the groundwork for a functioning ecosystem, according to MAEAP Technician Tony Wernette.
A RARE SIGHT: Prairie Smoke, a native plant, is threatened in the state of Michigan. Native plants are the groundwork for a functioning ecosystem, according to MAEAP Technician Tony Wernette.

By Emily Nummer Special to the Herald Review

BIG RAPIDS — Sometimes the best plants for your garden can be found in your own backyard.

While many people may not consider the benefits of native plants for their landscaping or gardening projects, planting native plants is worth a second thought, according to Michigan Agriculture and Environmental Assurance Program Technician Tony Wernette.

“Natives are the groundwork for what makes our system work, so if we don’t have the plant life necessary to support the animal life, we don’t have the ecosystem structure that was what was here to begin with,” he said. “Having those native plants balances out all the rest of the wildlife.”

According to Wernette, people can help balance environmental degradation caused by humans by planting native species. Though people think of many ecosystems as natural, they have been changed through human contact and behaviors.

“People think, oh that’s a forest. We can just leave that wild, but you’re having an effect on it, regardless of whether you’re conscious of it,” he said. “Being able to help support it isn’t you influencing it negatively. It’s not you forcing your will on it. It’s you nurturing it. It’s you helping it be what it’s supposed to be, because you are already changing it.”

One reason why native habitats are destroyed is for agriculture. When a habitat is changed for agricultural use, humans are taking away potential food sources for pollinators and other wildlife, Wernette said. He suggests planting native plants to reclaim some of the lost habitats, particularly to assist threatened or endangered species.

“By applying the proper native plants to the ecosystem, we can support those other populations that could be damaged by us just planting plants that we’re going to eat,” he said.

“There are a great many native pollinators and native herbivores that can become endangered or threatened because we don’t have the plant populations that they need. Everybody being able to put new native plants out there winds up re-establishing what we destroyed to be able to produce food for ourselves. We became their competitors. We became the invasives, of sorts. So that is our way of healing what we have damaged.”

Native plants also are vital to controlling invasive species. Wernette said when residents have invasives they need to control, the best way to do so is by putting in natives to keep a balance and keep other things from encroaching into the space. If people clear out invasives and don’t put the natives back in, there’s nothing to keep another invasive or anything else going in there that wouldn’t be considered native or helpful.

However, not all non-native species are invasive and many can be beneficial in their own way. There are a great many commodity crops that have been imported that allow farmers to produce a lot more food per acre, meaning they don’t have to harvest as much area, leaving the space to be used for native plants or other wildlife areas. By utilizing non-native plants for human needs, people are reducing potential habitat destruction, Wernette said.

When choosing between native and non-native plants, there are many factors to consider, according to Wernette.

“You have to balance human needs and wildlife needs. You have to balance what is improvement to the ecosystem and what is wild to the ecosystem,” he said.

Despite these complicated factors, Wernette believes it is important to help nurture the planet.

“Paying attention to the forest and assisting in its healing will help us counterbalance what effect we are having on the world, just by being what we are,” he said.