It might seem odd but gardeners often fail to understand and appreciate the effect native plants have on the environment. Most homeowners are in search of exotic species, many of which are invasive and directly endanger the local flora.
However, if we stop for a while to truly appreciate the value of natural plants, we realize that their impact on nature is far greater than we can imagine. In fact, green thumbs do not use natural plants enough in their gardens. Understanding how plants help the environment is a key step to planting native plants and falling in love with nature all over again.
What constitutes a native plant?
The best way to understand the full impact plants have on the environment is to study the effect of native plants on their surroundings. However, this raises the question of what native plants really are.
For some botanists, a native plant is a plant species that has been living in the same place for centuries. Others believe that a native plant is simply a plant that able to survive in the wild without human intervention.
Whatever the case, a native plant can be classified as a plant species that was able to adapt to a particular environment (climate, soil, wildlife, terrain, etc.) and thrive there without any help from humans. By studying such plant species, we can determine the full effect they have on their habitat.
Native plants that stand their ground
The biggest advantage of native plant species is the fact they are excellent at their job. Since they don’t require active care, they use underground water supply wisely, run on renewable energy (yes, we are referring to the Sun), recycle minerals and other materials in the ground, and store carbon-dioxide in their root system, stems, and leaves.
In addition to sustaining their own life, plants provide food and habitat for other species, both animal and plant. Finally, plants reproduce to spawn a new generation of plants that will make the landscape green for decades to come. Each year, they go dormant in preparation for the next season of blossoming in the same place.
Constant adapting to environmental conditions
Unlike birds which migrate in winter to warmer climates, native plant stay put when the climate takes the turn for the worse. An environmental downturn is more of a challenge for plants, rather than an opportunity to flee their habitat.
Garden plants have to rely on human help for fertilizers, watering, pesticides, etc., which makes them weak and non-resistant in the long run. Native plants, on the other hand, perform these functions on their own, regardless of the weather outside (a downpour or 40° Centigrade in the shade, no matter).
The issue with artificial fertilizers
We like to use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers in gardening and agriculture but these have a detrimental impact on the environment. Synthetic fertilizers are produced using fossil fuels which greenhouse gases when burned and they are hard to remove from the ground.
Unlike native plants, cultivated plants are fertilized in a way that our gardens and fields “bleed” contaminated water into the environment. As a result, the ground becomes barren and dead zones form in oceans, lakes, and rivers. The only way to prevent this scenario is to opt for organic gardening.
Pesticides kill the fauna
The Latin-rooted word “pesticide” might sound cool but it is nothing but a synonym for a poison. Like fertilizers, pesticides are produced from fossil fuels and have only one purpose: eradicating pests. However, the killing process is indiscriminate, hurting all animals it affects, including humans. As mentioned before, if you turn to organic agriculture, no bees, butterflies, and cats will risk their lives by entering your yard.
Plants and water usage
Garden plants need constant watering and the amount of water depends on a species. For instance, to grow a single avocado, farmers use 70 liters of water, draining groundwater from the region avocadoes are grown in, such as Chile.
On the other side, natural plants use water sparingly, thus protecting groundwater basins where the locals get their drinking water from. By using a limited amount of water, plants allow humans to expand the network of irrigation canals and expand farmland.
The damage of draining a groundwater basin is irreversible. It cannot be refilled annually by rainfall or snowmelt, so it is essential you plant native plant species in your garden to ensure that groundwater basins aren’t depleted over time.
The power of the Sun
Apart from water, sunlight is the second most important factor for plants to grow. However, not all plants require the same amount of sunlight over a given period. Some plants need to be exposed to Sun’s rays for most of the day, while others can live without natural sunlight, like u under dense tree foliage. Some of these plants for shade include Kaffir Lilly, lavender, giant grass, Sweet Box, spur flowers, etc.
It might seem at first that herbivores (rabbits, cows, deer, grasshoppers, goats, zebras, etc.) relentlessly destroy local plant life but they both plants and animals are part of a balanced ecosystem. Without native plants, the ecosystem would never exist, as exotic species cannot adapt to environmental changes. Native plants have a tendency to spring back from disasters, such as fires, and restore the balance back to the ecosystem, inviting animals back to their habitat.
Photosynthesis and oxygen production
Although you’ve learned about it at school, we should still remind you of photosynthesis: the biggest contribution of plants to our planet. Green plants convert light into chemical energy and consume carbon-dioxide through photosynthesis, pumping oxygen into the air.
Although it’s only a byproduct of photosynthesis, oxygen facilitates all life on Earth, humans included. The figures for oxygen production linger around one large tree producing g enough O2 for 4 people to survive one day. Truly impressive!
Cooling the earth
We’ve mentioned earlier that some plants require more sunlight than others but plants interact with sunlight in other ways a well. Green plants, for one, naturally cool the earth underneath them. This cooling can be mechanical (large surface of leaves) and chemical.
The latter includes the evaporation of water from plant pores, thus cooling the air around the foliage. However, for transpiration to be effective, the number of leaves and plants in general needs to be huge so this cooling effect can be experienced when you enter a dense forest or a rainforest.
Stabilizing soil and preventing erosion
Were it not for oxygen in the air, life on Earth would be impossible but we would be unable to sustain life without solid ground as well. Rain, wind, and glaciers constantly erode earth, altering landscapes dramatically. Heck, even Mount Everest is eroded each year by 0.3 millimeters.
Luckily, plants are there to prevent the soil from shifting underneath our feet. Their root systems run deep, binding soil together and packing it tight to prevent erosion. Additionally, tees with large canopies soften the blow raindrops deliver to the ground underneath, thus slowing down splash erosion.
Unfortunately, the places where laymen and scientists alike can see the effects of erosion the best are barren landscapes without plants. Zones without sufficient vegetative cover are eroded on a daily bases, polluting nearby water streams with dirt and making the area inhospitable for human settlement.
Growing your own food
Here is a fact about plants most gardeners are familiar with: they provide us with food. Whether it’s a fruit, a vegetable, or a herb, we rely on plants to give us food. Humans are carnivores but the animals we eat rely on a vegetarian diet to grow, so indirectly, we consume plants. However, we can cut short this food chain by growing our own food in an organic garden behind the house. Setting up an organic garden is easier than you might think.
Protecting wildlife and humans
A deer running away from hunters will most definitely head for a forest or nearby shrubbery. In fact, wild animals don’t only rely on dense vegetation for protection but the nest near plants and inside them. There are even plants species, such as mistletoe, that live off other plants, drawing water and nutrients from their hosts.
Moreover, bigger plants protester smaller ones, as mention in the case of shade. For instance, a towering tree provides protection and shade for smaller plants growing in its understory. Furthermore, the same tree can have bird nests in the canopy and animals living inside its trunk, such as owls and woodpeckers.
Humans also enjoy the protection of plants. As mentioned earlier, areas that experience deforestation are susceptible to the drought that destroys crops. The removal of the top layer of soil due to strong winds that have no barriers once the tall trees are gone, cause irreversible crop damage.
The way farmers deal with the problem of erosion is by planting rows of trees around cultivated fields and frontage roads to block strong winds. The same green barrier can be erected in your backyard but it would consist of a hedge.
It would stop dust particles generated by the traffic outside from penetrating your backyard. As an extra perk, the hedge would cancel out most of the noises coming from the street outside. While you’re there, you can use decorative shrubbery as well to protect your property. Thee scrubs can be trimmed any way you like, so you can turn them into art forms.
From understanding what a native plant is to using plants to protect ourselves, understanding the true impact of plant life on our world is essential. We call the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil “the lungs of the planet,” but in reality, every single plant, from a daisy to a giant sequoia is an oxygen power.