The birds, the bees and the butterflies


A cabbage white butterfly on blue vervain. (Photo by Marcie O'Connor)

When you start planning your garden this spring, consider adding plants that are native to this part of the country to help feed songbirds and attract butterflies and other wildlife to your garden.

Native plants provide habitat for native insects. Native insects are interesting and beautiful to look at, and they’re also important because they provide food for songbirds. As wild land disappears, the habitat for native insects disappears, and now we’re seeing declines in the populations of songbirds. As urban gardeners, we can help stop this decline by planting native plants in our gardens.

Native plants have been here for thousands of years and have been evolving with each other and with the insects and other animals that have been living here with them.

Exotic plants have been here only a few hundred years or less. They were brought here—some intentionally and some by accident—since the time of European settlement.

Most gardeners grow exotic plants. They are the ones sold in garden stores, they have the biggest, showiest flowers, and they have the longest bloom times. But there’s a problem with growing only exotics: most native insects can’t eat them.

Native insects need to eat native plants. Plants and insects evolved together, and many insects have evolved to specialize in only one kind of plant.

One familiar example is monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed plants. Milkweed gets its name from the milky juice in its stems and leaves. The juice contains several toxic compounds. Monarch caterpillars have specialized to feed on the leaves in spite of their toxicity. In fact, monarch caterpillars use the toxic compounds to make themselves toxic to predators.

The prairie at 1666 Coffman in Lauderdale, which O'Connor helped plant. (Photo by Marcie O'Connor)

Exotic plants have these evolutionary relationships with insects in their home countries, but not with our insects. So most butterfly caterpillars can’t eat the exotics in our gardens.

Native insects seldom cause permanent damage to native plants. It’s an evolutionary relationship. The insects benefit from having the plants around, so they usually don’t do a lot of damage, just enough to keep themselves alive.

Most of the insects we consider pests are not native. Like non-native plants, they were brought here from other countries. Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers, and gypsy moths are all non-native pests. One of the reasons they cause such problems for us is that our native plants haven’t evolved any defenses against them.

As our human population grows, we use more land for agriculture, roads, houses and industry, and for endless acres of mowed, chemically treated lawns and non-native landscape plantings. Every year there is less wild land, and even small “wild” areas are often overrun with non-native, invasive plant species. This habitat loss is especially important when it comes to native insects.

One thing that city dwellers can do to help is to grow diverse plantings of native plants—plants that insects can use—in our gardens.

It’s good to have insects in our gardens for a couple of reasons.

Nearly all songbirds eat insects. Even birds that we think of as seed-eaters, like sparrows, eat insects when they’re feeding their babies. Insects are high in protein, which is what growing fledglings need. If we don’t have insects, we won’t have birds.

And most people enjoy seeing butterflies in their gardens. Butterflies will come to nectar in a garden of exotic plants, but their caterpillars can’t eat the plants. If we want to feed their caterpillars so there will be more butterflies, we need to have plants they can eat. Those caterpillars are also an important food for birds.

You don’t have to dig up your whole garden and plant only natives. It can be done gradually, at whatever pace works for you. Each time you decide to add a plant, or replace an old one, think about using a native. A mix of natives and non-natives may fit better into your style. Or you may decide to go entirely native.

When you are choosing seeds to plant, beware of buying packets or bags of seeds that are labeled “wildflower mix.” ‘”Wildflower” doesn’t necessarily mean “native.” These mixes usually contain the mostly seeds of non-native annual flowers, a few perennials, and sometimes a few natives.

As you plant your garden this spring, please plant a few native flowers. And next year, plant few more. You’ll be helping the birds, and every native you plant will bring new and interesting creatures into your yard.

Where to buy native plants

Be sure to buy plants that are grown in nurseries, not dug from the wild. This is usually only a problem with hard-to-grow plants such as wild orchids and trilliums. If you buy any of these plants, be sure to ask if they are nursery grown. Here is a list of area nurseries that carry native plants:

• Kinnickinnic Native Plants, 235 State Road 65, River Falls,WI 54022,, 715-425-7605

• Landscape Alternatives,, 25316 St. Croix Trail, Shafer, MN 55074, 651-257-4460

• Linder’s Garden Center, 270 W. Larpenteur Ave., St. Paul, Minn., 651-488-1927 Linder’s sells mostly exotics, but they have a section of natives.

• Prairie Moon,, 507-452-1362 Located in Winona, Prairie Moon has a large selection of seeds, plants and seed mixes but is mail order only.

• Prairie Restorations,, 651-433-1435. Prairie Restorations has an online catalog and retail stores in Scandia and Princeton.

• OutBack Nursery, 15280 110th St. S., Hastings, MN 55033,, 651-438-2771 Out Back specializes in native shrubs but also sells flowers.

• Stockholm Gardens, Highway 35 on the east edge of Stockholm, Wis.,, 715-442-3200 Stockholm Gardens sells a number of woodland natives, including trilliums, shooting stars and more.

• Landscape Revival: Native Plant Expo and Market, Saturday, June 1, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Community Pavilion, Roseville Rainbow Foods, 1201 W. Larpenteur Ave. Go to to find out more.

Reading list

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware

Attracting Native Pollinators, published by the Xerces Society, is a guide to identifying and attracting native pollinators. It discusses the importance of pollinators in our world, and suggests ways to help protect them.

Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota by Lynn M. Steiner, which talks about some of the advantages of growing natives, which natives work well in gardens and some of the issues with non-natives, is very readable and good for people working on small gardens.

Marcie O’Connor is a naturalist who divides her time between St. Anthony Park and western Wisconsin, where she and her husband have been restoring the prairie and savannah of an old farm in Buffalo County for the last 13 years. Visit to see her stories and photos about that project.


This photo shows a part of the prairie O’Connor helped plant at 1666 Coffman in Lauderdale. A cabbage white butterfly on blue vervain. A soldier beetle on blue vervain. Photos by Marcie O’Connor

1 Response

  1. Jocelyn Warholm

    I was disappointed to find that Landscape Alternatives was not listed in the hard copy of the Bugle(about where to buy native plants) April 2013. I did note that it was listed on line.

Leave a Reply