by Kristen Hoss
Plants, especially large trees and shrubs, are something many people take for granted. Plants do so much for people, such as clean the air and water, provide oxygen and food, help regulate ambient temperature, stabilize moods and increase health, hold on to valuable soil, provide immeasurable ecosystem services and important food for wildlife such as birds and pollinators, and much more.
However, since the mid-1600s, humans have deforested 90 percent of the United States. Although there are more trees in the U.S. today than ever, it turns out that much of the time native trees and plants have been replaced with the wrong types (primarily non-natives) planted in the wrong places. In Florida, out of 4200 plant species, 1400 are exotic and many are invasive. Additionally, the activity of land use, including planting and conversion, has destroyed and fragmented native habitat thereby disrupting the food and habitat availability along migration routes and within functional ecosystems. Moreover, approximately 51 percent of native lands have been converted into agricultural and farm lands, replacing functional ecosystems with things such as methane-producing cattle (non-native to North America) and a monoculture of crops (many of which are converting to genetically modified) that extend for hundreds of miles.
Agriculture such as this on a large scale introduces $4.1 billion dollars’ worth of pesticides annually to the landscape to prevent pests and weeds, without discriminating between beneficial insects and plants such as pollinators (bees, butterflies and beetles) and their host plants such as many native trees and shrubs, native milkweeds, carrot relatives and a plethora of region-specific larval host plants. (Learn more about these by taking a local Florida Master Naturalist class or look it up it on a research-based website such as the University of Florida-IFAS, ifas.ufl.edu.)
You may ask why native? Why would one go to all the trouble of finding and planting native trees and shrubs when the big box stores that mainly carry exotic (wildlife sterile) plants are so easy to access? The answer is to save money and the planet!
Approximately 60 percent of the U.S. is privately owned which means everyone’s yard (or even patio) counts. First, go native for the sake of your pocketbook and wildlife such as pollinators and birds. Florida is classified as a biodiversity hot spot with three major bird migration routes and two butterfly migration routes that have been studied extensively. Whenever the habitats along those routes are altered, it is like removing gas stations along an interstate—no fuel equals no movement. In the case of migratory wildlife, that means a sharp decline in population which is best seen in migrants such as the monarch whose population has declined by approximately 90 percent in the last 20 years. Just by planting native plants in the right places within the ecosystem of the yard (or in a pot if only a patio is available), homeowners are essentially restoring habitat. Find Florida native plant growers at afnn.org.
How does this affect your pocketbook? Decreased water bills: The right native plant in the right place saves money on irrigation costs, a savings of about half of the average water bill. By directing gutter runoff from the roof to places where more water is desired, converting lawn to native habitat and utilizing rain barrels, irrigation is unnecessary once the plants are established.
Decreased electric bills: Plants, especially trees, provide cooling benefits from shade and evapotranspiration, and if planted strategically around the property can provide an energy savings between 30 and 50 percent. Trees also provide ecosystem services such as removing CO2 from the air, thus increasing air quality and providing health benefits which can lead to decreased health care costs. To calculate the financial and ecosystem related benefits of trees, visit TreeBenefits.com/calculator.
Decreased cost of mowing and fertilizers: The right native plant in the right place does not need fertilizer, and no lawn equates to no mowing, which equates to less cost in gas (decreasing air pollution) and lawn replacement costs. The landscape will still need to be maintained, but a pair of clippers is less costly than a lawn mower and gasoline.
Take it from someone who walks their talk: my average electric bill (without solar, which I just had installed) is $44 per month. I can only be charged every other month for the water consumption portion of my water bill because I do not use enough every month. I have no irrigation, mowing or fertilizer costs. To learn more, go to yeaFrog.org.
Kristen Hoss is an educator and ecological consultant who leads the Florida Master Naturalist program in Broward County, produces in-school environmental and science education programs, and provides expertise for ecological surveys and monitoring. She has a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a Masters in Conservation Ecology and Wildlife Sciences. and over 25 years of experience in the field of ecology (inclusive of marine, aquatic and terrestrial) and the management of natural areas and wildlife. Hoss’ passion is making a difference in people’s lives, to the environment and to wildlife through working and partnering with like-minded people and organizations that share her vision of promoting sustainability through self-empowerment and education.