Suzanna MacIntosh, pictured here at Radium Springs Garden, is a Lifetime Master Gardener and member of the Georgia Master Gardener Association. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)
When I was growing up, native plants were abundant in our gardens, along fencerows and roadsides and in natural areas. Now that has changed and those very plants are in short supply and the food and shelter they provide to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife are no longer always readily available. As a consequence, we are seeing a decline in butterfly and other insect and pollinator populations which depend on native plants. That, in turn, is causing a decline in many of our terrestrial birds who depend on insects to feed their young.
Most of us have heard that native plants can add beauty, distinctiveness and a sense of place to our gardens. Native plants are often better adapted to the local soil and climate and more resistant to local pests and diseases and they often need less water and maintenance once established. However, few people had noted the critical connection between native plants and our butterflies and other plant-eating insects until recently when Dr. Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, caught the attention of many knowledgeable gardeners across the nation and caused a paradigm shift in the way many people garden.
But, what is a native plant? A good simple definition of a native plant is “a plant that was present in a particular location prior to European settlement”. Defining a native plant can be more complicated though. Over time, by natural selection, a plant species adapts almost imperceptibly to particular environmental conditions and can be considered additionally an “ecotype” of the species. And, to mix it up more, we have hybrids of native plants, bred often for hardiness and bloom, sometimes at the expense of other important characteristics.
Another important point is that a native plant has evolved as part of a greater community, an ecosystem, and it doesn’t exist naturally alone in the environment. We have in Southwest Georgia a perfect example of this in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem which includes an amazingly abundant variety of plants and wildlife. The open canopy of the Longleaf Pine forest sustains one of the most diverse animal and plant ecosystems in the world providing needed habitat for our native Bobwhite Quail, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, beautiful wiregrasses, a variety of native wildflowers and much more. It is in balance and changes as plants encroach or die and conditions vary. When adding native plants to your garden it helps to find a spot that has some of the features of its natural environment.
Each native plant provides something special no other plant can. Plant-eating insects, like butterflies, evolved with native plants and they are dependent on native plants to complete their life cycle. In the caterpillar stage, a soon-to-be butterfly needs a specific native plant to develop. This plant is called the “host plant.” A butterfly species will only lay eggs on its host plant and when it hatches into a caterpillar that’s the only plant it will eat. For Monarch butterflies, the host plant is Milkweed and they can’t reproduce without it. To learn more, Georgia DNR’s online brochure “Backyard Butterflies” is very informative, Monarchs Across Georgia has invaluable resources online and the University of Georgia provides great resources through Cooperative Extension offices or online.
In an exciting recent development we now have a chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society in South Georgia, the Coastal Plain Chapter! It includes the Upper and Lower Coastal Plain regions and Barrier Islands of Georgia. The Coastal Plain Chapter connects us to each other and gives us a chance to learn more about the native plants and natural areas nearby. To learn more, see www.georgianativeplantsociety.org.
With spring just around the corner, March is a perfect time to start thinking about adding native plants to your garden, and several great events are scheduled to help with that. March 15th, Birdsong Nature Center’s “Old-Timey” Plant Sale will be held from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Birdsong is just below Thomasville at 2106 Meridian Road and each year this sale includes hundreds of native azaleas and many other hard to find native and “old-timey” plants. Birdsong’s website, www.birdsongnaturecenter.org, has lots of information or you can call 1-800-953-BIRD. Birdsong has wonderful family activities all year long, so be sure to check back later for more great events.
Another March event is the South Georgia Native Plant & Wildflower Symposium on March 26th. This is held on the UGA campus at NESPAL at 2355 Rainwater Road, Tifton. A plant sale for attendees begins at 9 am and is followed by the Symposium at 9:50 a.m. The website, www.sgnpws,org has lots more information or you can call (229) 391-6868. The Symposium often fills up early, so make your reservations soon.
A few tried and true native plants to consider incorporating into your garden are Native Azaleas and Hollies, Magnolias, Wax Myrtle, Chickasaw Plum, Purple Cone Flower, Indian Pinks, Bee Balm, Salvias, Black-eyed Susans, Spicebush, Red Buckeye, Beautyberry, Woodland Phlox, Coral Honeysuckle and, of course, Milkweed! There are many more and it is fun to learn about the beautiful native plants of South Georgia.
Suzanna MacIntosh is a Lifetime Master Gardener, a longtime member of the Georgia Master Gardener Association and served as 2013 President of the Southwest Georgia Master Gardeners.
The Southwest Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteers are coordinated through the Dougherty County Extension Office by Urban Horticulture CEC James Morgan.