Much of the material I write is ultimately intended for kids. “Native” and “invasive” are deceptively simple words that describe complex concepts. I know many of you are working hard to create habitat with native plants in their yard. You might find yourself in the position of sharing the concepts of “native” and “invasive” with children or curious neighbors. I thought I’d share how I explain these ideas to students.
What makes a plant or animal “native?”
Native plants and animals are species of plants and animals that came to your area naturally. They have lived together in communities for a long time. They have adapted to live together in balance.
What does “balance” look like? It looks like this: there are enough plant eaters to eat the plants but not all of them. There are enough insect eaters so there won’t be too many insects or too few—just right! There are enough predators to eat some of the plant eaters, but not too many. There are enough decomposers to “recycle” plants and animals that have died.
What makes a plant or animal invasive?
A plant or animal is invasive it was brought to a place by humans (or because of them). Sometimes this has happened on purpose. For example, in 1890, a man named Eugene Schieffelin released 60 European starlings into New York City’s Central Park. He wanted all the birds that appear in Shakespeare’s plays to live in the United States. Now there are millions of starlings in North America, and they often cause problems for native birds.
Sometimes this happens on accident. The brown marmorated stink bug was accidentally brought to Pennsylvania from Asia. It has spread and is causing trouble for farmers across the United States. The zebra mussel hitched a ride on ships and found a home in San Francisco Bay, where it is pushing out native species.
What does this have to do with MY backyard?
As the population of the world grows, more and more people build houses in places where wild animals live. Usually, these new homeowners fill their yards with lawns and non-native plants. The animals that used to live in these places are not used to the new plants. They have to go to other places to find food and shelter. However, if families include as many native plants in their yards as they can, many of these animals would be able to stay.
Does this mean we should not have any non-native plants in our yards?
This is my favorite garden plant in the whole wide world. It is called a brown-eyed Susan. It is native to parts of the eastern United States. I live in Washington (the state, not the city), so this plant is not native where I live. My mom used to grow it in her garden. It is really special to me.
People choose plants for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they think the flowers are pretty. Sometimes the plant reminds them of someone they love. Sometimes the plant was a gift from a friend. It’s okay to have some non-native plants in your yard.
You should know that some non-native plants are causing lots of damage to plant and animal communities. These plants are called “noxious.” Most states have a list of noxious plants. You should avoid having these plants in your yard, even if they are plants you really like. The wildlife will thank you. So will your neighbors!
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