Wildlife Value for All

At a local native plant sale not too long ago, I overheard a customer conversing with a volunteer who was helping her find trees and shrubs for her landscape.  When the customer said that she “only chose plants with ‘high wildlife value’”, I cringed.

I know that might strike some people as an odd reaction coming from someone, like me, who is a passionate advocate for using more native plants because of their ecological benefits.  So let me give you a little context.

In Maryland – where I live – virtually every native plant aficionado eventually ends up owning  a copy of Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  This publication of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contains information on over 400 species of plants native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed region.  A print version can often be found for sale by non-profits, but it is readily available online (both on the National Park Service website as PDF and HTML,  and in database form on the Lady Bird Johnson National Wildlife Center website).

I mention this guide because it is a standard reference for plant-sale shoppers, including the customer I overheard, and one feature of the guide is that some (about 15-20%) of the plants are indicated as having “high wildlife value”.

But the definition of “high wildlife value” used in this guidebook and others is arguably incomplete and out of date.  It was originally embraced by the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1930s as part of their efforts at encouraging farmers to use native plants for erosion control.  The USDA praised certain plants as having “high wildlife value” based, it seems, largely on the value of the plants to game species: essentially birds and mammals.

For example, Clarence Cottam’s 1936 book The Place of Food Habits Research in Wildlife Management presents the concept of wildlife value in this relatively narrow context:

“. . . . the creation of such an environment that the maximum of food and cover is available at all seasons of the year for the particular birds or mammals considered.”

This is essentially the background on which the USFWS guide ultimately depends: “(t)he notation “high wildlife value” is based mainly on the value of the fruits, seeds and/or nectar used as food for wildlife. . . .”

In all fairness, the guide was compiled nearly a decade ago, and even today many of us are still grappling with how to integrate the various ways in which native plants can be beneficial to ALL forms of wildlife.  As we become increasing aware – thanks to the work of Doug Tallamy and other scientists – that herbivores are critical component of our food web this archaic reliance on fruit value seems, well, quaint.

For example, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed lists only one sedge, no grasses, and no wildflowers as having “high wildlife value”.

Why not Goldenrods (Solidago) or Asters?  These wildflowers are each a larval host for over 100 species of native butterflies and moths.

Or Switchgrass (Panicum)? Switchgrass is host to two dozen species of butterfly and moth larvae and a critical refuge for many other insects – like fireflies.

Or Milkweed (Asclepias)?  Although Milkweed species are only larval host to a dozen different species of butterflies and moths, some of those (like the Monarch) are entirely dependent on Milkweed.

Or Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea)?  This plant hosts even fewer varieties of butterfly larvae, but I cannot imagine a better seed source for goldfinches in an urban garden.

These, and many other plants, play critical roles in our ecosystems that go far beyond merely providing fruit or seed to be consumed by animals that people like to hunt.  Although I am quite encouraged at the growing awareness on this front, I would like to see a more modern definition of “wildlife value”  work its way into common usage.  In the meantime, those of us who advance the native plant cause may have to do a little homework on our own and educate our friends with what we find.

I mentioned Doug Tallamy earlier, and I encourage readers who are comfortable using spreadsheets to visit the landing page for his study on larval hosts.  A fairly complete list of plants, and the number of species of lepidoptera these plants can support, is there to be downloaded.

For those who don’t like spreadsheets, Tallamy has made it easy to view and print lists of the favorite herbaceous plants and woody plants for mid-Atlantic butterflies and moths.

The poor customer who started this story was, I’m afraid, building an incomplete habitat because she was dependent on a resource that used an incomplete definition of “wildlife value”. The more we can respect the many various ways that our native plants are part of the ecological whole, the more we can truly achieve gardens with “high wildlife value”.

© 2011, Vincent Vizachero. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Vincent Vizachero

    Vincent Vizachero is a native plant advocate and consultant in Baltimore. His focus is on lecturing, environmental education, social media management, and grant-writing. You might think the fact that studied Economics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business would make him a bit of a geek. You'd be right. You can keep up with him on Facebook and Twitter.


    1. Bethesda Locavore says:

      This is so interesting. I am one of those customers, and that book is sitting on my kitchen counter right now. I’d wondered about that “high wildlife value” thing so I really appreciate the clarification!

    2. UrsulaV says:

      A very good analysis!

      One could also make a case that plenty of native plants are worth growing simply because they are valuable in themselves, not merely in service to the animal kingdom. I grow a patch of closed-bottle gentian, which so far as I know has almost no wildlife value, simply because it’s a nifty little plant, damnit, and endangered throughout a good deal of its range. It’s arguably the single most useless plant in the garden (now that I tore out the boxwoods…) but it deserves a home somewhere, too!
      UrsulaV recently posted..Flowers and Manuscripts

      • Vincent Vizachero says:

        I absolutely agree! Wildlife value is very important to me (often it is the most important factor to me) but “human value” plays a big role too.

        But don’t write off your closed-bottle gentian too quickly! It is an important late-season pollen source for bumblebees (especially worker bees). These bees favor pollen over nectar, and are strong enough to open the closed-bottle gentian buds!

        Your gentian is doing something your boxwoods surely could not have done.


        • UrsulaV says:

          Hey, that’s great to know! I feel even better about it (although I’d continue to grow it as a plant worthy of preservation anyway!)
          UrsulaV recently posted..Flowers and Manuscripts

    3. Vincent Vizachero says:

      By the way, the truth is that I absolutely LOVE and value the book “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping” published by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Chesapeake Bay Field Office which I mention in this article. I didn’t intend to come across as a harsh critic of the book, but rather to encourage readers of the book to ADD to the information the book contains.

      I should have expressly made the point in the article that this publication is an amazing resource, one I rely on almost daily, and that I anxiously await the new edition which is apparently in the works.


      • HeatherWheatley says:

        Well said Vincent! My well-used copy of the Native Plant book from US Fish & Wildlife is actually in a 3 ring binder with 17, 18 er 19 I think addendum tabs that I’ve added over the years from research and experience. It is a go-to book and an essential “starting point”. My favorite tabbed addendum is the dozens of authorities who are trying to define the word native. Can’t wait for a white paper on the final declaration.

        Excellent posting topic!

    4. Gloria says:

      Very good point about older books. Only recently have insects and pollinators in particular been counted when evaluating wildlife value. While there is much good information still valid new information is always being confirmed.
      Gloria recently posted..Plants grown from seed Spring 2011

    5. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      Vincent, this is such great information. Thank you! It’s so frustrating sometimes to hear someone say “I saw a bee on my hosta, so it must be a good wildlife plant” or “I saw a spider on my Siberian Iris so that means it’s a good choice in my wildlife garden.” With information like you’ve given here, maybe we can help people make better choices for plants with high wildlife value in their gardens.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Cormorant Vs Eel



    1. Links – May 27, 2011 « Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog: Floral Photography by Patty Hankins says:

      [...] Plants and Wildlife Gardens has Wildlife Value for All and Finding Native [...]

    2. What is Wildlife Value When It Comes to Choosing Plants? says:

      [...] And, “Which plants have the most value for wildlife?” [...]


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