DESIGN IN NATURE: Native plants allow ecosystems to thrive

A recent article from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute highlights the importance of native plants on privately managed lands.

After monitoring nesting chickadees, the study concluded that environments with less than 70 per cent native plants will not be able to sustain a stable population. Experts believe this to be the case for songbirds in general.

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Birds are dependent on high calorie, high protein food sources, mostly spiders and caterpillars, and often these insects need native host plants. I have recently been enjoying the delicious berries of Vaccinium ovatum (evergreen huckleberry) one of my favourite native plants, and I thought maybe I should do a series featuring different North American native plants.

Since this is harvest time for the delicious berries of Vacccinium ovatium, I will start with that plant.

I often refer to this plant as a hero plant. I have never encountered any problems with this evergreen beauty, but I once saw some City of North Vancouver crews discarding a bunch of these plants and when asked why, I was told that the root balls had chafer beetles in them. Vaccinium could be at risk from chafer beetles, but I have seen no evidence of a problem with the beetles attacking this plant.

It is happy to grow in full sun, partial sun or full shade, but you will get the best show of flowers – and therefore the best berry crop – in full sun. The leaves are shiny and egg shaped with finely serrated edges.

 In the spring, the new leaves are a beautiful coppery bronze color, and combined with pink flowers and the dark green older evergreen leaves, it is a beautiful showy plant. The foliage is spectacular in bouquets. The berries are dark blue, ripening in early fall, tastiest after a frost, and sometimes lasting into December.

The berries are produced in clusters and can produce 10 to 20 times the fruit of single-fruited huckleberries the same size. Many songbirds, thrushes, ptarmigans, towhees, ring-necked pheasants and grouse, as well as several mammals, eat the berries. Pink bell shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. The bushes are used for hiding, resting and nesting sites by both birds and mammals.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to source these plants in larger sizes, however, they become well established in about three years. They will reach three to six feet in the sun, and up to 12 feet in the shade. I once planted them as a perimeter hedge, and years later saw that someone had hacked them into mutilated little blobs, just as they were reaching their desired effect. So sad to see the results of pruning tools in untrained hands.

The beauty of this plant is that it is virtually maintenance free, as are many plants if the right location and conditions are chosen. They have a compact root ball and can be easily moved in the fall if redesign is necessary.

Heather Schamehorn is a certified residential landscape designer, consultant, educator, sustainability advocate and acupressure therapist. Contact via www.perennialpleasures.ca

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