Saturday, March 1, 2008

Douglas Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home"

I'm biased, but this book kicked some tail. A few years ago, to be honest, this would've bored me. Not so now as I'm far more conscious of what role my garden / landscape plays in the world around me. And as I start my garden, I want the right plants, and thankfully Tallamy has a nice list for all four corners of the States in the back, yet NEGLECTS the midwest and plains. So, I have no choice but to guess on this and trust my local nurseries, which he says not to do since the horticultural industry proclaims alien plant species native after 100 years or so, and a zone 6 plant in one part of the country native to a zone 6 area on the opposite end. But, dogwood, viburnum, elderberry, milkweed, and violets will be coming to my house en masse in two months.

He also has a nice long chapter, with images, of beneficial insects and why they are neato.

I took notes, so I give you note form. No interesting prose for you, but the ideas, if you read through, build to some pretty conclusive ideas: we can still save our environments from mass extinction if gardeners garden native. Huzzah!

We tend to have three distinct views on the value of nature: 1) need it to exploit it (for medicine or paper or what have you); 2) need it for aesthetic or moral reasons; 3) it literally sustains us. He argues that all three are necessary and valid in order to have greater biodiversity.

Open lawns are part of our evolutionary psychology—space helps us see lions and hyenas coming at us. It’s time to get over this because these threats are no longer tenable. So, plant over and understory trees; plant thick shrubs in foundation plantings, especially since most bird species nest in shrubs, not trees, and we garden for birds and butterflies (luckily, moths and butterflies are the #1 food source for birds and other animals, a win win if you ask this reader).

All we have left are patches of native places, and these have all but condemned many species of plant and animals to extinction (both because the habitat is small, but also because alien plant species more easily gain a foothold with less native competition).


--In our lifetime 95% of plant / animal / insect species pilgrims saw will be gone.

--Landscape ecologists say only 3-5% of all US land is undisturbed.

--As gardeners, we must lead by example and believe in E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia, that humans have an innate love for nature, and so will want more of it, nurture it, respect it.

--Biodiversity is easy to increase if we act before extinction (easier to get than fresh water or clean energy even).

--There’s more CO2 now in the air than anytime in the last 10 million years. I wonder though, what happens when the ice melts and we no longer have core samples with which to trace earth’s climatic history?

--1 hectar (2.5 acres) in Amazon has 473 tree species; PA has 134 species total. Now, how fast is THAT vanishing?....

--37% of world’s insects eat plants.

--96% of North American birds rely on insects, and the spiders that eat them, to feed young.

--Most insect species contain more protein than beef pound for pound. Yum. Omaha Steaks = Omaha Insects.

--Many common bird species decline at a rate of 1% per year!

--Within a century ¼ of all birds (globally) will be functionally extinct in ecosystems--so rare they play no ecologically important role. There are currently 9,000 bird species.


--Why insects don’t use alien plants:
1) Most are unpalatable (honeysuckle, buckthorn, burning bush, barberry, purple loosestrife)
2) Takes a long time for insects to adapt to chemical mix in leaves (millennia)
3) Insects / plant specialists – 1 needs the other, so insects shun aliens
--they evolved closely together symbiotically, they simply CAN’T eat aliens
--They evolved to beat specific plant defenses, time life cycle to them, learn to
find plant, ability to eat plant….

--5,000 aliens have invaded natural areas in North America

--Aliens do bad things, Mr. Will Smith:
--lower insect production
--exclude and hybridize with native vegetation
--alter frequency of wildfires
--alter availability of surface or ground water
--decrease diversity of soil biota
--deplete soil nutrients
--degrade aquatic habitats through soil erosion
--increase competitive pressure on endangered plant species
--degrade wildlife forage

--“Perfect” gardens are contrived plastic, and on their literal deathbed. Gardens are not and should not be perfect. I.E. they aren’t pest free, either—buying pest resistant plants does little to create biodiversity in the environment.

“Their study shows [Raupp and Sadof] that as much as 10% of the foliage in a garden can be damaged by insects before the average gardener even notices. This is exciting news. It tells us that most gardeners do not have a zero tolerance of insects in the garden and that maybe, just maybe, the populations of insects that create 10% damage levels might be large enough to support communities of natural enemies so diverse and numerous that the foliage damage levels never exceed 10%. I believe this utopia will be easier to achieve when most plants in our gardens our native.”


--One large sugar maple can sequester 450 pounds of co2 per year!

--One hour of mowing = 650 mile of driving, 800 million gallons of gas in lawnmowers each year, and $45 billion in lawn care (plus, think about all those frogs and spiders you kill)

--Blue jays bury nuts and seeds as caches like squirrels

--Tree and bush crickets use concave leaves to amplify mating calls

--Spittle bug creates bubbles of plant sap out of anus to cover itself up (human babies do this too I believe)

--30% of all animals are beetles

--Blister beetle causes blisters and an overdose is fatal, but also acts as Viagra (now, who would stand there and apply a beetle to your...)

--Moths and butterflies are largest food source for other animals


Anonymous said...

I can see too many holes in this book according to your notes. I taught Biology for years. I've seen adaptation that is caused by man and animal both natural and foreign. If humans were not on the Earth--it would still adapt, change, compete, and keep the cycle marching onward.

I sit in the middle on introducing new species and cultivars. There is no peace in nature or man. Both fight for the right to be the dominant one. If you introduce all the natural plants back to any particular area then it will compete with crops for food---you will be affected and eventually your wallet and your children or grandchildren will find a way to make life better and get rid of it. Why not bring back dinosaurs? We will have the ability one day.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anna--I'd be interested to hear what other holes you see. I'm sure, as with any book, it won't work for all persepctives, and my abridged notes maybe don't help. I agree, and think Tallamy would, too, that adaptation and crossing and what not happens all the time anyway. But I think the main concern is with the speed at which we've forced introductions of alien species, the unlikely speed at which organisms must adapt, and the steep extinction curve that develops as a result (on the plant and animal level). Is there a hole here you see, as a biologist? (I'm not being glib, seriously asking as I'm not a scientist.)

I wonder if he'd advocate 100% extermination of aliens. Sometimes I think so reading the book, sometimes not. In any case, it has made me more aware of my purchases, habitat / species loss in my region, and refocused my gardening strategies to some degree--all good things I believe.

IBOY said...

I think growing all the different milkweeds native to an area would be really fascinating. I don't think most people really appreciate just how degraded our remaining natural habitats are getting in this country, due to invasives. It's easy to say that things will just evolve anyway, but it will be a more boring, much less diverse world when man gets done.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Don--I've been researching this week what milkweeds are native to Nebraska, and have already placed some order. Hopefully, though, the lolal nurseries will have some started for me BEFORE the monarchs arrive. I've got a smallish 6x6' spread I'd like to put them in. If I had an acreage, I'd seed the thing with whatever natives I could, actually. Some day...?

Anonymous said...

Yes, - Benjamin I agree with a comment you made in your comment response above. The 'man' stuff is all a matter of kinetics - kinetics speeded up such that true adaptations are rarely allowed to occur. I'm not one to think that it is reasonable for man to simply 'stop' looking for new things - new cultivars, new whatever - but it's all about maintaining and respecting what we can of the diversity that exists now. Diversity statistics - the loss of species - to me is one of the saddest things going - my laboratory works on a coral reef off the southern coast of Puerto Rico where there has been a 53% loss in coral covers in the past four years. FOUR YEARS. It's like looking at a watery graveyard. It breaks my heart.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Oh Pam, I HATE to hear things like that. No more. Lalala. (I recently read about so many native song birds in steap decline--up to 80%, since just the lates 1960s). But you have an interesting line of work, it seems, and an important one. I agree--we can't NOT have new cultivars, and that's ok, but we should think more native... especially when we so value the native birds, bees, and butterflies (those being the most obvious things). Coneflowers that can't reseed themselves, for example, scare me.

Anonymous said...

I think that the songbirds along the eastern shore have really taken a hit, and I think I notice a difference even at my own feeders.

Yes, the coneflowers are a bit freakish, aren't they? It is really easy to plant things that all sorts of wildlife thrive on - folks just get too oriented towards the landscape rather than the ecosystem. My only problem is snakes. Boy do they love my garden - and they make me jump feet up in the air and going running for the stairs (not that I'm that whimpy - I have an infestation of copperheads, have had a timber rattler for awhile, and had water mocassions chase after me).

Rosemarie said...

I'm a little late commenting and my thoughts are -- gardening around your home (1/4 acre maybe) and an entire prairie are 2 different things. So while you have major competition out in the wild, it's important to treat your 1/4 acre like an ecosystem that deserves and promotes diversity. And because it's managed you can help make sure that competition stays in check. Thanks for sharing this book with us.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Better late than never! I agree 100% with you, and with Tallamy when he says if we all did this, we'd have one large continuous ecosystem. Oh, I'm just so excited about my new garden this year and seeing what bugs and such come my way. Not excited about the snow forecast tonight, though.

Gloria said...

Hey Benjamin, I liked Tallamy's book. Ever since reading 'The Forgotten Pollinators' and then 'Tracking the Vanishing Frogs: An Ecological Mystery' I have been on a mission to learn more about what can be done, in our own gardens and on a larger scale by supporting natural areas.

While many books on native plants exist it is very recent that anyone is addressing specifically the insect population and how that connects with native planting and all other life.

Here is a link to an article about Nebraska plant communities if you are interested.

In a very general sense, Nebraska has three basic plant communities - the eastern woodlands, the Panhandle pinelands and the prairies in between. Each has its own unique assemblage of plants, and each has its own distinctive character or "feel."

And their flora search information...

Benjamin Vogt said...

Gloria--Hey, thanks for stopping by! What I really like is, yes, how Tallamy goes a bit deeper into our surface sensibilities as gardeners and humans: if you like birds and butterflies, then you need these bugs, and then you need these plants not for the birds and butterflies (or for good karma), but for the bugs the birds eat. Or something like that. It makes the environmental / ecological appeal more real, more connected, more integral in some ways to us. And thanks for the links--I'm gonna go check them out now.

Anonymous said...

I work with Doug Tallamy and wanted to let you know a good source of determining whether a plant you are interested in is native or not is the USDA PLANTS database. It takes a little know how and a little getting used to, but it is (in conjunction with publications by state natural heritage program flora accounts) the resource we use in our lab to determine whether plants are native to an area. So, if you go to your garden center, find some plants you might want to use, you can check to make sure they are native to your area before buying them.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--Since I wroe this post I have found and use the USDA site, though I find it annoying and not super helpful like some other sites, mobot and wildflowers for example. I've also purchased some regional plant guides and am proud to say about 75% of what I have is native.

Nutmeg said...

75%! You are doing better than I AM! I noticed after I posted that this was from March LAST year, so I apologize for coming a year too late.

I found your blog because I was trying to find one of Tallamy's older articles for a citation for a paper we are currently writing and you came up in the first page of results.

I hope you keep up the good work. It is incredibly difficult to locate and purchase native plants, and the more people who do so, the larger the market and the easier it will become. I'm considering trying to arrange retailer education seminars/resources so retailers might be able to at least accurately answer basic questions about plant origins.

Good luck!

Suzanne Dingwell said...

Doug Tallamy was the keynote speaker at our Florida Native Plant Society last May. He agrees with you, Anna, (March 2) that plants will adapt to whatever conditions are thrown their way, given time. The problem is that most of these adaptations occur over the course of hundreds of years. We have changed our ecosystems so radically and quickly that many plants and animals are being forced into extinction; they cannot adapt quickly enough. Thus we loose functionality in our ecosystems, loose diversity in population, loose the knowledge that can be gained by understanding how various elements DO adapt.

Functioning ecosystems nearby will help support food grown for crops; and of course we need them. Tallamy is not suggesting that we let natives take over, only that if we are wise we will improve our environment by preserving natives instead eradicating them. If you like exotic ornamentals, plant them - as long as they are not invasive- but make the backbone of your garden or yard native.

Suzanne Dingwell said...

Looser and looser these days....
I meant 'lose' of course

Benjamin Vogt said...

Suzanne--Three cheers for everything you said! I wish all my neighbors would plant some native wildflowers instead of the standard big box shrubs from China and the Med. Actually, I wish apartment complexes and business parks would plant meadows instead of grass--mow once or twice a year, increase property value, be able to raise rent for the scenery, conserve water, less costs to maintain.... So freaking obvious! I just came home from a nursery sale (got lucky with there being one) and they actually had lots of plains natives I purchased, some I'm not familiar with. Thanks for stopping by! Loose or lose, I don't mind (yes I do, I have a PhD in English). :)

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