Giving Nature a Fighting Chance

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It seemed inevitable that soon enough in the coming months, this continent’s most captivating moth species would once again grace my outdoor spaces. And following a talk by entomologist and garden revolutionary Doug Tallamy last week, it even seemed conceivable that at some point I’d have the privilege of watching them feast on my fledgling woodland phlox.

What I didn’t realize was how quickly that would happen. Only two days after hearing Tallamy practically guarantee a visit from day-flying sphinx moths wherever Phlox divaricata is planted, one zipped past me to treat herself to the tasty spring ephemerals by our patio.

Seeing the tiny hummingbird lookalike so early in the season was magical, but her attraction to the pretty purple flowers shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Native plants are like that, beckoning their animal paparazzi before we can even get them in the ground. It’s why I’d chosen this species last fall—to provide blooms for early pollinators and spring salve for my own winter-sore eyes.

What took me aback, though, was the specificity of the visit. This wasn’t just any pollinator; it was exactly what Tallamy had predicted, and on the very native plant he had shown us in his presentation to Maryland’s Howard County Master Gardeners. It was as if he’d made a pit stop at my home and conspired with the moths to orchestrate the whole event.

Image of clearwing moth on verbena
This annual verbena was the only species I’d ever seen clearwing moths sipping from at this time of year—until I planted just three phlox divaricata (shown at top) last fall. The native phlox will return and spread every season, requiring less water and feeding more pollinators who depend on early blooms.

He hadn’t, of course, and that’s the point of the powerful message he’s been sending to the gardening public for nearly a decade, first through his 2007 book, Bringing Nature Home, and now through The Living Landscape, coauthored with Rick Darke. Nature evolved over millennia to create this and many other specialized relationships, he argues, so our role is to restore and nurture these plant and animal communities if we’re going to save enough biodiversity for a livable planet.

In the case of woodland phlox, it spreads readily from seed, but not unless it’s pollinated. And because of its narrow corolla, only an especially long proboscis can accomplish the task. “I’ve watched many bees land on those flowers and try to get their tongues into it, but they can’t do it,” Tallamy said. “It’s too small a hole.”

Image of hummingbird clearwing moth on phlox
Made for each other: Phlox flowers provide a perfect pathway for the proboscis of this hummingbird clearwing moth visiting my patio.

It’s just right for the snowberry clearwing moth he captured in his photo, though, and for the closely related hummingbird clearwing moth I captured in mine. And while the phlox may need these adult moths more than they need the phlox—clearwings dine on the nectar of other flowering species—the interdependencies don’t stop there. Clearwing moth caterpillars, like most other insects, rely completely on a limited palette of plants to survive.

In fact, 90 percent of the insects who eat plants are specialists, meaning they have evolved in concert with only a few plant lineages. That has critical implications for our terrestrial bird species, 96 percent of whom rely on insects, spiders, and other arthropods to feed their young.

Image of hummingbird on wild bergamot
Hummingbirds are more visible to us when they’re sipping nectar, but insects and spiders make up 80 to 90 percent of their diet. “So you don’t even have hummingbirds to put up that hummingbird feeder for if you don’t have any insects and spiders,” said Tallamy. Frogs, toads, bats, rodents, possums, raccoons, foxes, and bears also rely on insects.

“This is news to a lot of people,” said Tallamy. “It’s news to the people who write ‘landscape for birds’ books. You can read those books, and they’ll all tell you how to put plants that make seeds and berries in your yard. And that’s good to make seeds and berries. But if you don’t have the plants to make the insects, you don’t even have the birds to make the seeds and berries for later on in the season. So we need to put the plants that are making insects in our yards as well.”

Over the past half-century, as we’ve sprayed and chopped and mowed down those life-sustaining flora, we’ve inflicted incalculable losses on the fauna who depend on them. In just 40 years, bird numbers have dropped by 50 percent. More than 230 bird species are on a watch list for possible extinction. As of last winter, monarch butterfly numbers were down by 96.4 percent of their population size in 1976. Some other species of butterflies and bees are either on their way to extinction or thought to be already gone, their declines so precipitous that even the White House is intervening. Our frogs are in trouble, our watersheds suffocating from decades of uncontrolled runoff from crops and lawns.

Image of monarch on milkweed
A monarch butterfly found our front yard on Sunday, just a week after the emergence of milkweed, its host plant. We can plant with intention for many other species as well, said Tallamy. “We can use the knowledge of specialization to actually rebuild food webs wherever we want to do that.”

As bleak as it sounds, the trend is not inevitable. Collectively, one homeowner at a time, we can start to reconnect whatever fragmented habitats are left. Each time we choose a new plant for our yards, Tallamy advised, we should ask: How are we saving our pollinators? How are we sequestering carbon and repairing the damage done by chopping down so many of our forests? How are we contributing to the food web that starts with the insect specialists?

“This is the single most important thing you can do to stop the steady drain of species from our neighborhoods,” Tallamy said. ” … We need to raise the bar about what we’ve asked our landscapes to do. In the past we’ve asked them to be pretty. We’re good at that. But these days we’re going to have to ask them to support life. Because if we build lifeless landscapes at home, we’re going to lose the biodiversity that runs our ecosystems.”

Image of coral honeysuckle vine
Beauty and brawn: Vines and trees provide not just nectar and shelter for birds but food for caterpillars—who in turn are critical food for bird babies. A native nectar plant, this coral honeysuckle went into my garden more than a decade ago because I had a vague sense it would help other species while bringing joy to me. Only later did I learn that those species include leaf-eating caterpillars of the snowberry clearwing moth. Other native species, including the viburnums and hawthorns we planted, are favorites of the larvae of their close relative, the hummingbird clearwing moth.

In our own garden, this challenge has meant inserting native plants into the lifeless lawn my husband and I were faced with when we moved in 15 years ago—just 2.25 acres of the 45 million and counting that are covered over in unsustainable turfgrass across the U.S. It has meant removing invasives that take over habitat while encouraging natives that pop up on their own—the milkweed, the sassafras, the oaks, the hickories, the boneset, the violets, the sumacs, the black walnuts, the common evening primrose—to bloom where they’re planted. And it has meant learning to celebrate the holes in the leaves and the beetles on the flowers and the messy little webs and tents that signal the presence of our forgotten baby insects.

I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always understood the interactions at play. My nurturing of the entire lifecycle of day-flying sphinx moths was only broadly intentional, in that I knew native landscaping would at least help someone crawling or flying or hopping through my garden. I just didn’t always know whom. But as I would come to learn long after planting our coral honeysuckle more than a decade ago, the vine isn’t just a nectar and fruiting plant for pollinators and birds; it also feeds the caterpillars of the snowberry clearwing moth and the spring azure butterfly. Even the leaves we’ve left undisturbed below those vines—out of a sense that tiny creatures might take cover and feed there—have a role to play, sheltering pupae during the long winters.

Some people admire the wild beauty my husband and I have gradually tried to restore on our property, replete with incongruous-looking species like viburnum and milkweed and invasive Bradford pear seedlings emerging side by side. Those who can tolerate the concept of a landscape in transition have even asked us to help them in their own gardens. But the truth is that we’ve had little to do with the most wondrous things happening here. Nature swept in and made it largely by herself. All we needed to do was learn when to get out of the way and give her a fighting chance.

6 thoughts on “Giving Nature a Fighting Chance”

  1. This post is a great summary of Tallamy’s argument for the power of landscaping/gardening to sustain life, support biodiversity and provide much-needed ecological services in our communities. I think you’re underestimating your own role, however; far from getting out the way to give Mother Nature a “fighting chance,” you’ve taken the time to learn, observe and practice what’s needed to attract and encourage the sensitive pyramid-builders of biodiversity, making your garden a safe, humane, and busy haven for these plants and animals. It’s very impressive that you are both writing (beautifully) about this, and at the same time practicing it. Thank you for pointing the way forward.

    1. Thank you, Gail! I think of the days early on when I labored over every plant and removed things I shouldn’t have and generally made thing so much harder for myself and less helpful for animals. Then I think of now, when each time we go outside we see something new and wonderful popping up that we had nothing to do with. So it’s a combination of intention and intentional but benign neglect, if that makes any sense.

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