Be an Advocate for Nature By Sharing What You Know
I try to go out of my comfort zone and share information in online neighborhood groups where the focus is rarely on creating a wildlife friendly habitat and more often on how to control nature. Yet when I answer a question or create a post that can reach up to twenty thousand people in the neighborhoods around me, it seems like a perfect opportunity for advocacy, and a great place to suggest a different perspective. I make sure that anything I post in this sort of forum is as anodyne and neutral as possible. I believe most folks are sincerely on the side of the environment in principle and are just unaware about how something they do might be harming it. I also never engage with the jerks who enjoy being contrarians. It’s not my goal to argue or be right, just to pass along information that might be helpful.
Landscape culture is still predominantly impacted by the marketing done by the 24 billion dollar a year pesticide industry and the $129 billion a year dollar lawn and garden industry who divide wildlife and plants into categories of good and bad. If you search for any given insect, many of the top sites that pop up are pesticide companies. They often give helpful facts about identification and the lifecycle of the insect, explain how to keep the insect in question from “invading”, then advise calling a pest control company of there is an “infestation” or you even see the insect in your home, garden, or lawn – meaning they are considering the insects as pests for just existing outside in their natural habitat! Beneficial beetles, carpenter bees, and wasps are categorically defined as pests and they often give advice on how to kill them.
If you look for information about native plants that might pop up in a lawn, you’re likely to get advice from your local extension service about how to control them as broadleaf weed. For example, I’m slowly growing rustweed (Polypremum procumbens) in between the pavers on my front walkway and landing. It’s a great groundcover for this area and seems to stand foot traffic. Yet finding information about rustweed when it first appeared in this area was tricky because it’s considered a lawn weed.
Pointing out the benefits of an insect often considered a pest, or a native plant considered a weed may have a big impact in changing the perspective for folks who don’t yet know we’re living in an increasingly less biodiverse world where human actions such as pesticides and habitat loss are contributing to the spiraling disappearance of plant species and wildlife including birds.
This week someone posted in a neighborhood group a photo of a small American burnweed (Erichtites hieracifolious) growing in a pot and wrote “Any idea what this plant is? I may have been nurturing a weed” because she had been trying to grow basil and realized there was no basil.
Out of a few dozen responses:
A handful didn’t identify it but said it was a weed and advised getting rid of it.
Over a dozen also didn’t identify it but posted something positive about weeds along the lines of a weed being an out of place plant, a plant man has no use for, or possibly good for pollinators or as a caterpillar host (yay!).
Another handful identified it as a dandelion and encouraged leaving it because dandelions are beneficial. (A topic for another post!)
A few identified it correctly as burnweed without much elaboration.
One shared that it’s peppery and makes a good tea.
This was an amazingly encouraging thread even though the details about the habitat value of native plants is not yet there. The idea that weeds are beneficial or at worst benign and we should let them exist in our yard is a pretty big shift from the scorched earth aesthetic of having a perfect lawn and yard. I bulked up the benefit of burnweed with facts including a climate change angle and took the time to write the following along with a photo of a bumblebee with big pollen pockets on a burnweed flower growing in my yard:
"It looks like American Burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius) which has more of an ecological benefit in our yards than most intentionally grown plants do. It’s an important fall native nectar plant for pollinators including native bees and butterflies. Look at the pollen pockets of the little bumblebee on the burnweed in the attached photo! Just yesterday I saw goldfinches eating the seeds on one of the burnweed plants I’m growing in my rewilded yard Interestingly, burnweed is also particularly efficient in assimilating atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, a greenhouse gas pollutant from the burning of fossil fuels and acting as an ecological “sink” and rendering it to its organic form. For more information about this valuable native habitat plant read this link from Nancy Lawson at the Humane Gardener."
We rarely know if we’re spitting in the wind when we share helpful information online in public spaces, but my own experience make me confident that it matters. I’m all in on restoring habitat, yet my learning curve is still pretty steep, so new information can still help me change my behavior in some way. For example, up until this year I didn’t know what burnweed was. I stay on top of knowing what’s growing in my yard and I’m guessing if I did see it at some point, I assumed it was invasive hawkweed and pulled it up without giving it a thought. I’m thankful to Nancy Lawson who wrote a Humane Gardener post about burnweed last year that I read at some point this year. If she didn't opened my eyes to this valuable plant, I wouldn’t have been able to respond to the question in the neighborhood group.
I also wouldn’t have the experience of seeing burnweed grow in my own yard. When I read about burnweed earlier in the growing season, I looked around my yard to see if any had popped up. I found a few plants and kept an eye on one vigorous plant that grew six feet tall next to my back deck. Sure enough, throughout the summer there were countless insects on the leaves and flowers, and as I mentioned in the neighborhood group, more recently there were goldfinches on it. Now that I’ve let my burnweed go to seed, I’m sure this beneficial native annual will pop up even more in my yard next year. I’ll let it battle it out in areas where there are assertive native plants and edit it where it might overwhelm others. I’ll also point it out every time I host a habitat workshop!
Hopefully, because of my little paragraph and the comments from other nature lovers, there will be at least a few more yards where burnweed will be welcome next year. I would encourage anyone who is on the path of habitat restoration in their own yards to share what you know even if it might not be obvious that anyone cares or if you think you might be just singing to the choir. You don’t know who might hear you and change in some way to help nature because of information you’ve given them.
Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.