Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) makes for fine foraging.

Make ‘em Count

When choosing plants to add to your garden, consider what functions and benefits they will provide. Many of our cultivated plants offer just a fraction of environmental benefits that native species do.

Over the years, humans have developed a habit—or have expanded on a habit—of control. Controlling our landscape with the help of sprays, tools like mowers and blowers, materials such as concrete and asphalt, and even tinkering in the natural world by producing plants that no longer have the ability to move about freely. We can use the familiar plant Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) as an example. On its own, it is a real stunner with dark orange disc florets at its center surrounded by bright purple-pink ray florets or petals at its perimeter. If you have ever looked closely, I mean c-l-o-s-e-l-y at this flower as it develops, you will be in awe. First comes a sturdy stem rising up from the ground, reaching upward through leaves, grasses and earlier season’s blooms to present its flower gracefully atop a hollow pithy stem. As the flower begins to unfurl it resembles an anemone or other sea creature, the discs arranged in imperfect order, unfurling as the season moves on. How can we even imagine improving on such a thing?

Well, short answer is, we can’t. The garden supply stores are full of Echinacea cultivars like Magnus and Alba, Butterfly Kisses, Marmalade, Hot Papaya and Milkshake—many of which are sure to confuse any pollinators that comes near. Pollinator species see in a whole different set of colors and ultraviolet patterns than humans do. To apply a much simplified explanation, bees see mostly in blues and greens (they cannot see red), butterflies see an array of reds, violets, blues and greens. Ultraviolet light and patterning created by each flower creates an additional level of readability needed to flag down our pollinators and direct them to where the nectar and pollen are. Hot Papaya has clearly thrown caution to the wind and forgotten all of these laws of nature. And, if confusing colors and patterns are not enough to send your pollinators buzzing away, these plants are cultivated to have little if any viable pollen and seed. When we cultivate plants to create versions that will not move from where we have planted them, the function and environmental benefits are often significantly diminished.

Nature is subtle only if you have not yet learned to see it, if you have not taken the time for a closer look or a deep breath when the Hamamelis or Phlox are in full bloom. Even our beloved native Echinacea purpurea has a wonderful scent -but it asks you to come closer to smell it.

As you may know, it is not just about the flower. All parts of a native plant are contributing—as food for Phyciodes tharos (monarch butterfly caterpillars) or as a sheltered sleeping spot for a cluster of male Melisoides bimaculate (two-spotted longhorn bee). Our native plants can provide a perfect nesting cavity for Ceratina spp. (small carpenter bee) or a place to overwinter for Phyciodes tharos (pearl crescent butterfly)—the list goes on and on.

As habitat for pollinator species such as bees, butterflies, moths and birds is being swallowed up by the expansion of our built environment and as our dependence on these species becomes better understood, it is more important than ever that we dial back our need for control and learn to appreciate what nature has to offer. Next time you are pondering what to add to your garden, leave the Butterfly Kisses behind and go native. 

Email to join our native gardening community and get tips on how to prep a new garden, plants that love to grow together, bringing butterflies to your yard and more.

Liz currently works as horticulturist for Niles Park District and is co-owner of North Branch Natives.

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