Worse, such plants often go hand-in-garden-glove with an entire ethos of yard maintenance that relies on poison. Between the herbicides designed to kill weeds (including early-blooming wildflowers) and the insecticides designed to kill anything that crawls (including native pollinators), the typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.
And not just for native plants and animals. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters that some researchers say can have a devastating effect on human health, and may be linked to A.D.H.D., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, infertility, cancers, just for starters.
As if that’s not enough, some of the exotic plants we’ve introduced into our formerly functioning ecosystems actually do more than thrive in our built landscapes. Some of them are so well adapted to their unnatural homes that they crowd out the plants that belong. In the American South, where our climate is so perfectly suited to plants from Asia, there is an easy way to know whether many plants are native or exotic: Drive past a forest or wooded city park in the very earliest days of springtime. Any tree or shrub that is greening up or blooming then almost certainly doesn’t belong. In March, the woods here are filled with blooming — and highly invasive — Bradford pear trees, while the buds on the serviceberries are still tightly furled.
It’s hard to address this problem because so many of these flowering trees and woody shrubs have been planted in American yards for so long that their blooms engender a nostalgia for home. And not just in our yards — the delicate blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees now belong as much to our own National Mall as they do to Japan.
My late mother planted the forsythia that is blooming so cheerfully in my yard right now. She also planted the Kwanzan cherry and the flowering crabapples that are on the verge of budburst. A few years ago, I dug up the bridal wreath spirea she planted for me but only because it wasn’t getting enough sun beneath the Leyland cypress tree she also planted. None are native to Middle Tennessee, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to kill them. Most grew from cuttings that came from my childhood home. At least one of them came from hers.
For now, my compromise is to fill our yard with plants that do the work nature designed them for: to feed our wild neighbors. All over this yard there are now young pawpaws and red mulberries, Eastern red cedars and American hollies, redbuds and native dogwoods and, yes, serviceberry trees. It’s not too late for you to do the same in your yards and your towns. The local county extension service or a native-plant nursery can help you find the trees and shrubs that work best for the soil and light conditions where you live. Even easier: Enter your ZIP code in the native plant databases at Audubon or the National Wildlife Federation.
“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities?” asks Douglas W. Tallamy in “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.” His answer might astound you: “Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”