Go native: Lack of local flora takes toll on Keystone State’s ecosystem

ClearWater Conservancy’s front yard after planting a variety of species native to Pennsylvania.
ClearWater Conservancy’s front yard after planting a variety of species native to Pennsylvania. Photo provided

It’s not easy being green. For one thing, the competition is pretty fierce.

Flower beds throughout Centre County are preparing to open for business as slush and snowmen pack for spring break. The chilly white powder coating lawns and gardens soon will be replaced by exotic young plants with broad shapes and warm hues.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Pennsylvania is nearing a point where almost half of its approximately 3,300 species of plants are non-native, said Eric Burkhart, a faculty instructor in the ecosystem sience and management department at Penn State. The lack of local floral life continues to stymie some pollinating insects and fray critical strands in the food web.

“Our flora in Pennsylvania is rapidly changing,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart, who also serves as the plant science program director at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, said plants are a habitat’s primary producer, the first layer of food in a complexly woven ecosystem. Changes to green life can destroy habitats and tie knots in the local food chain — beginning with insects.

While many insects can pollinate with a variety of flowers, Burkhart said some pollinators rely on plants that grow naturally in Pennsylvania, evolving in concert with the local flora over hundreds of years. Insects can’t adapt as quickly as non-native plants are entering their environment, and a scarcity of these pollinators means less food for birds, leading to fewer meals for the foxes and bobcats.

ClearWater Conservancy, a Patton Township-based organization that advocates for the conservation and restoration of natural resources in central Pennsylvania, encourages local landowners to incorporate native plants into their landscaping.

According to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, almost 70 percent of Pennsylvania woodlands are managed by private landowners, placing a significant portion of local conservation efforts in the hands of the average gardener. Katie Ombalski, a conservation biologist at ClearWater, said she believes that allowing room for even just a few native plants in a yard can help make a difference.

“If you get a few neighbors working together, you can really have a big impact,” Ombalski said.

Many native flowers suffer from a case of mistaken identity, as they are targeted as weeds or forsaken by landscapers in favor of non-native plants that are perceived as being more user friendly.

Ombalski said people do themselves a disservice by mistakenly categorizing beneficial wildflowers as weeds in favor of non-native species that offer little or no benefit to wildlife.

“There’s decades of knowledge of how to use non-native plants, but not everybody knows how to use natives,” she said.

Terry Melton, of State College, cultivated a green thumb for years before she finally took the master gardener class at Penn State Extension. She said she was fascinated by the mysterious plants growing by the roadsides and meadows but had yet to incorporate any into her own landscape.

Melton is now the lead volunteer at the garden that ClearWater maintains outside of its offices in Patton Township. Meant as a demonstration, the bed of vegetation is a small-scale sample of what a Pennsylvania meadow should look like and incorporates more than 60 species of plants, trees and shrubs.

“I began seeing how ClearWater’s garden was a way to learn about those plants and teach others about them,” Melton said.

Near the end of April, Melton and 10 to 20 other volunteers will begin mulching, weeding and thinning aggressive plants to reawaken the garden after a long winter’s nap.

Seven years of this routine have left Melton with an eye for incorporating native plants into everyday landscapes.

“If you have lots of space and need a screening shrub, you can plant elderberries. If you have dry shade, something like Solomon’s Seal will thrive. To draw in butterflies, there are a number of lovely pollinator plants, including butterfly weed, which is an astonishing orange milkweed with beautiful pods at the end of summer,” Melton said.

According to Burkhart, native plants are no different than non-native plants in terms of how gardeners can integrate them into a landscape. Gardeners should identify their own needs — for example, deer find some vegetation more appetizing than others — and make local selections that accommodate those goals, even if it means treading lightly.

“I don’t think I would be 100 percent honest if I said that everybody needs to go down this path,” Burkhart said.

Every little bit helps, though. Aesthetic and ecological benefits aside, striking a more even balance between domestic and foreign foliage can help to preserve a sense of identity within the Keystone State, especially as flower beds across the country become increasingly homogenized. Burkhart emphasized the importance of preserving a sense of place in the ridges and valleys of Pennsylvania.

“I would argue for the people who like gardening, and gardening is America’s favorite pastime, that we can do better,” Burkhart said.