Roots and Shoots: What’s in Your Backyard?

A recent study showed the rate of species extinctions speeding up. Our deforestation, carbon emissions and development have destroyed the habitat, ecosystems and living conditions for thousands of species of wildlife, aquatic life, plants and trees. They just disappear. 

The last regal fritillary butterfly, the last wood turtle, the last rusty-patched bumble bee — most of us wouldn’t recognize them, but they may no longer exist in the near future. 

striking caterpillars

What’s eating my plant? These are striking caterpillars feasting on parsely. They become black swallowtail butterflies. (Photo by P. Doan)

The numbers of beloved monarch butterflies have diminished so steeply that they, too, have been considered for endangered species status. Nearly 400 species of North American birds may not survive our rapidly changing climate. Native bee numbers have shrunk and the insect apocalypse has been in the headlines as scientists sound the alarm about population declines. The world is in free fall. 

Biodiversity in our backyards is one key element that we can control, even if it’s only a blip against the scale of loss. The first step is to inventory what’s planted there. 

Here’s the inventory for 2 acres of my landscape: 

Trees: Colorado spruce, black spruce, Eastern white pine, shadbush, redbud, forsythia, spicebush, winterberry, red twig dogwood, maple trees, hemlock trees, river birch, black birch, ash, oak, juniper, boxwood, cedar, witch hazel, coralberry, apple, pear, raspberries, elderberries, native cranberry bush, currants, blueberries. 

Native perennial plants: honeysuckle, two types of milkweed, bee balm, bergamot, anise hyssop, golden alexanders, blue star, lobelia, mountain mint, mistflower, yarrow, blue vervain, sedums, asters, goldenrod, four types of ferns, echinacea, wild indigo, obedient plant, foxglove beardtongue, bleeding heart, wild geraniums, foamflower, wood poppies, bloodroot, coreopsis, lavender, native grasses, Jacob’s ladder, joe-pye weed, ox-eye sunflower and rudbeckia — three types. 

Aren’t plant names wonderful? 

There’s also a vegetable garden, herbs and ornamental plants I inherited, such as lilies, peonies, rosebushes and hydrangea. Name an invasive plant and it’s here, too, but hasn’t taken over. Yet. 

When we moved here 10 years ago, the house had a lawn carved out of the forest, with forsythia and Japanese barberry dominating the landscaped areas. I’ve contributed everything else except the mature hardwoods and the apple and pear trees. Each season I see the rewards — more birds, more insects, more life around us. 

A cool bonus to doing an inventory of your yard is learning that there’s life growing there that you didn’t know about. 

Try a plant or tree identification app if you want quick (but possibly inconclusive) results. I’ve had mixed success with LeafSnap and Seek. 

If you’re more of a book person, find a copy of Dirr’s Manual of Woody Plants and learn how to identity shrubs and trees by their foliage, bark, blooms and fruits. This can be a family activity. 

Then, inventory in hand, try to understand what role each plant plays. Do birds use a particular plant to find caterpillars, berries, seeds or nesting? What species of insects use it for food or shelter? For example, shadbush (Amelanchier Canadensis) is the host plant of the white admiral butterfly and an early season source for pollinators. Birds love the berries and caterpillars it attracts. 

Another example, forsythia, does not provide nectar or pollen for pollinators. It’s widely planted because the deer don’t eat it. It’s also not native to North America. 

When you identify ecological gaps, you can make a planting plan for what you want to bring in and where to place it. Features such as water sources, a brush pile, leaf mulch and patches of bare soil for ground-nesting bees can be added, too. 

Other helpful resources include The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small, by Steven Kress, and Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy and Rick Darke. The Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, an affiliate of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, has lists of native plants suited for various light conditions at sunywcc.edu/about/npc. 

If you’d like to know the botanical names of plants in my yard, or you have any other questions, email me at rootsandshoots@highlandscurrent.org. 

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