By Susan Light, Master Gardener
I was going to write about how our native plants provide many ecosystem services – because they do! They form the base of the ecosystem, providing food and habitat for other organisms. For example, plants are fed upon by insects, which may be eaten by birds. In general, native plants support other native species more effectively than non-native plants. They also help with storm water management because their long roots slow down water movement which can prevent flooding better than mown turf grass. And, they store carbon in their roots and stems, helping to regulate greenhouse gasses.
But because Minnesota has just gone through the hottest June ever recorded, I want to write about the resilience of native plants to extreme weather. I’ve heard climatologists compare this June to the dust bowl years. And, we have not had rain in a long time where I live in Dakota County MN. What can we plant in our home gardens that will stand up to the changing climate?
Looking around my garden I see burned out astillbe, yellow, crispy, and curled up hosta leaves and heuchera struggling to stay alive under the shade of a tree. However, the native plants that comprise about 75% of my gardens tell a different story. The native plants in my yard are a little droopy during the heat of the midday, but by the next morning they are upright and looking pretty good.
I have a native heuchera called Alumroot that is still green while the non-native heuchera in the same site is dying.
I credit the very long roots that support the native plants underground. The roots stay cooler farther below the surface and they can find moisture where the shorter rooted non-native plants may die in drought conditions, like we are experiencing this June, without providing additional irrigation.
Each year I shrink more of my lawn to enlarge garden beds that I plant with native shrubs, grasses, sedges and beautiful flowering plants like Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis sp. Painted Lady butterflies lay their eggs on this host plant and when the caterpillars hatch, they form a feeding shelter by webbing a folded leaf together.
After this period the adults emerge and the pearly everlasting white flowers appear.
I plant several species of Penstemon, which the bees love, New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, a small shrub that grows in part shade to sun and also attracts a large number of small bees. And, of course I have several species of milkweed to attract adult monarch butterflies looking for their host plant to lay eggs.
In the shadier areas I have Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, for the hummingbirds that return in late spring. Golden Alexander, Zizia aurea, attracts many small bees and has orange and red leaves in the fall. Large-leaved Aster Eurybia macrophylla, looks lovely with Zigzag Goldenrod-Solidago flexicaulis and provide migrating monarchs and birds food for their journey. All of these plants are still looking healthy in my gardens after 2+ weeks of 90-degree days and no rain or irrigation.
I’ve just named a few, but there are many more native plants in my garden that look like they will survive this stretch of heat and drought. However, everyone has different conditions in their yard. Differences in soil type, number of shade trees, soil PH, can all make a difference in how plants respond to heat and drought. These plants are doing well in my yard, but no guarantees they will in your yard.
Extreme weather events are likely to be more common, so consider including some of these more drought resilient native plants in your garden. If you don’t use pesticides, you will be rewarded with more birds, butterflies and bees who will find a home in your yard. Pull up a chair and enjoy the show.