When talking about gardening with native plants most of us think about Californias amazing variety of plants and the enjoyment we can get from growing these plants. A plants ornamental qualities will certainly play an important part in our selection. Flowering time, drought tolerance, wildlife value, and disease resistance are all good things to consider before buying and establishing any plant.
Over the last 10 years it has been increasingly clear that there is another reason to plant natives. Wild areas are being both chopped up and isolated or destroyed by development at an alarming rate and there is no reason to believe this will stop or even slow down.
I realize this is not new information but I think we need to start reacting to this continued urbanization in a constructive way. Can California continue to grow and at the same time retain some of the qualities of wildlands? In other words is there any room in an urban landscape for native plants and wildlife and the uniqueness and diversity that goes with them? Or will most of urban California assume the sameness of the Freeway Look; plantings of eucalyptus, oleander, ice plant, juniper, etc. The Freeway Look is the one Cal-Trans has used along most freeways from central California south Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with these plants, wide spread use of them homogenizes the landscape into this Freeway Look which has no relationship to the natural landscape and the wildlife that depends on that landscape.
Would substituting plants such as Pinus radiata or Arctostaphylos pajaroensis, both native to California outside our area, for eucalyptus or oleander make a difference? No! What is native to our area is that which grows here. Thats what makes our slice of California unique from all the rest of California and, in fact, the world.
Why is it important to use only native plants? Let me first illustrate the answer with an example; the native beach pines located in the area from the west end of Murray Rd. to the area north of Murray road along the ocean. Over the last twelve years the native beach pines have been removed, houses built, and Monterey pine and Monterey cypress often re-planted in the landscape. This continuing change is easily seen from Highway 101.
Beach pine, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress are all natives to California and all grow near the ocean. So whats the big deal? We are replacing one California native with another, right? The larva of the western pine elfin butterfly, Incisalia eryphon , feeds on beach pine. When beach pine is removed or replaced with Monterey pine or cypress the western pine elfin disappears. Neither Monterey pine or cypress is a host plant for western pine elfin larvae. Now only in natural areas where there is still significant numbers of beach pine can you still see this beautiful early spring butterfly.
Multiply this butterfly/pine relationship by all the other relationships involving flora and fauna and you can see why it is so important to try to maintain native plant populations and the distinctiveness they provide. Our area is unique and we need to recognize that uniqueness and plan for its preservation. We cannot stop development but maybe we can modify its environmental destructiveness by thoughtful planning and diligent work, now. Our children will inherit what we choose to leave them. Hopefully in 25 to 50 years from now people living in Humboldt County will still be able to see the pine elfin flying in stands of beach pine.
* The Western Pine Elfin is also found inland on other species of pine.