by Denny Olson

Part Two: The places on the planet — restoring balance

(see part one here)

Last month I outlined the big, planetary picture. About big, planetary balance. But there’s something else you might want to know — because you don’t just live “on a planet”. You live in a place on that planet. And that place has its own animals, its own plants, that live in its own balance.

Continents are different from each other, with different climates, and topography, and ocean currents. And they each have their own plants and animals — and their own balance. And on those continents, there are places where the weather is different, or they are divided by a mountain range or a desert. And on that mountain range, the weather is different at different elevations — so the plants and animals are different as well. Or, the weather might be influenced by being close to oceans, or far away. Or by being closer to the equator, or to the North and South Poles. 

In each of those hundreds of different places on the planet, the plants, and therefore the animals, are in their own balance, shaped by millions of years of adjustments. If they have been in that place for a very  long time, living in balance with the other unique and old beings there, they get a special title: They get to call themselves a … “native”!

The natives are all different from each other, but over time, they have adapted to fit in. They may have complicated relationships with hundreds of other natives, but they still fit in. They don’t change the balance. Every plant on planet earth is a native … to a certain place! The plant  — and the place — need to live  together — because they have for at least thousands of years, if not millions.

So, all of the other living beings that are “native” to a place have intricate relationships with the native plants. and the pathways are likely though the native insects or herbivores that eat native plants — often only native plants, and sometimes only one native plant.

Here’s a local, Flathead Audubon-specific, example. Owen Sowerwine Natural Area (OSNA), which we manage, is a beautiful and rare-in-Montana river bottom conjunction of two rivers. Huge (and old) black cottonwoods tower over a sub-canopy of huge (and old) chokecherry trees in the 8-feet-higher “upland” of the old flood plain. The rivers have down-cut and left that area higher and drier. In the seasonally wet abandoned river channels, cottonwood seedlings and saplings still grow.

All of us bird nerds who still frequent the area know that Red-eyed Vireos are very common there. In May and early June the males are singing their “How are you? I am fine” songs up to 40,000 times per day! Then it gets quieter as the pairs are busy feeding perhaps six mouths instead of two. The hatching of the chicks, at least in OSNA, correlates exactly with the hatch of cottonwood beetle larvae, increasing the high-protein food supply multifold. So this one linear relationship of black cottonwoods to cottonwood beetles to Red-eyed Vireo chick survival, is one among millions whereby native plants feed native insects who feed native birds.

Nowhere is there a non-native species that fit into most of these relationships. Not only do non-natives take up valuable space, but they often have negative relationships with natives. Our OSNA hall-of-shame example is a huge infestation of common buckthorn — originally introduced as a decorative — which leafs-out earlier, drops leaves later, grows faster, chemically inhibits other (native) plants from growing nearby, toxifies the soil to all amphibians, and has berries which are cathartic (read diarrhea) to birds and can sicken them. It also supports no native insects! We are in the middle of a long-term and complex eradication project on this and about 8 other non-native species in OSNA.

So my recommendation? When you head for the nursery to buy decorative plants this spring, the first question to ask: Is it native to here? If not, you might want to treat it like the bomb squad would. Natives rule!