• ljmarkson

Replace Non-native Bushes With High Impact Native Bushes

Updated: Feb 2

Rewilding a semi-urban yard to create an eco-friendly sanctuary is more emotional than I anticipated. Almost a year and a half ago after I had dug up most of the non-native perennials in my yard, I set my sights on the non-native bushes.

Removing the overwhelmingly pedestrian landscape shrubs in my yard was easier once I made a list of where they were native to.

  • Native to Japan - spirea, clayera, acuba, euonymous, boxwood, aralia, plum yew

  • Native to China - forsythia

  • Native to Africa – podocarpus

Unless there are outliers I’m not aware of, the fact that none of the non-native bushes growing in my yard hosted any butterfly or moth species sealed their fate for me.

This beautiful, fragrant and beneficial native fothergilla, not Chinese forsythia is now one of the first bushes to bloom in my naturalized yard.

Saying goodbye to my collection of exotic ornamentals including hybrid hydrangeas with evocative names like wedding gown, blushing bride, Chantilly lace, and dancing snow, snow-white camellias that bloomed in the dead of winter, neon pink spring azaleas, and ambrosial gardenias may have been my biggest naturescaping breakthrough. I need to maximize the habitat benefit every plant provides in my small yard. At best some these traditional Southern bushes offered temporary wildlife shelter, but their contribution of food and pollinator habitat support was lacking. It was time to make the leap and Maria Kondo them…thank them for the joy they brought me before letting them go.

These lovelies once brought me joy, but when it became obvious I couldn't add more beneficial bushes to my naturalized yard unless I removed them, they had to go.

In the end I tied orange flagging tape to well over two dozen bushes for my husband to dig up on weekends throughout the winter.

A one point, it looked like just about all the bushes in my yard were tagged for removal with orange tape; including this indian hawthorn.

The removal of the ornamental non-natives made room for the dozens of more habitat friendly native bushes and small trees I had bought at fall plant sales or been gifted by friends. Some of the plants included black willow (salix nigra), blueberries (vaccinium), serviceberry (amelanchier), viburnums (viburnum), spirea (spiraea tomentosa), New Jersey tea (ceanothus), elderberry (sambucus), chokeberries (photinia/aronia), coralberry (symphoricarpos orbiculatus), buttonbush (cephalanthus), spicebush (lindera), fetterbush (lyonia), summersweet (clethra), titi tree (cyrilla racemiflora), sweet shrub (calycanthus), hearts a bustin’ (euonymous americanus), virginia sweetspire (itea virginiana), fothergilla (fothergilla gardenia), and native azaleas (rhododendrons),

I still had plenty of spots left to plant even more bushes last spring. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit my favorite native plant sales evaporated. I planted perennials as place holders and last fall I found more bushes at native plant nurseries and smaller scale native plant sales. I hope to add more native bushes in the coming months.

Every bush and tree I was able to plant is thriving and contributing to a healthier habitat including the following high value host plants for butterflies and moths:

  • The 3-foot black willow (silex nigra) seedling that my friend Sandi gave over a year ago is now almost 7 feet tall! It loves the partially sunny, slightly soggy part of the backyard I planted it in. It also supports 455 different caterpillars!

This picture of my black willow (silex nigra) was taken in early summer. By fall it had filled out and grown a couple more feet!
  • The native spirea steeplebush (spiraea tomentosa) is much showier than any hybrid and does double duty as a pollinator nectar source and a host plant for 89 butterfly and moth species Staplebush has rewarded me for planting it in a moist and partially sunny area with tiny pollinator attracting clusters of petite flowers on sweet pink spikes.

Spirea steeplebush mingles well with other small shrubs and hearty native perennials.
  • Chokeberries (photinia/aronia) hosts 29 butterfly and moth caterpillars! Native bees adore the lovely spring flowers, and the bright red berries give ravenous winter birds energy.

Chokeberry's delicate spring flowers attract a variety of pollinators.
  • Coralberry or snowberry (symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a host bush for 25 caterpillars, including the enchanting hummingbird moth. Pollinators are attracted to the white and green spring flowers and hungry winter robins seem to enjoy the light orchid berries that brighten the winter landscape.

Underused coralberry bush (symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a charming and sturdy native plant that belongs in every natural yard habitat yet would also fit perfectly in a more traditional landscape.

Removing and replacing non-native bushes was like firing someone who is just not up to the job… not only did I not regret it, but I wish I had done it sooner!

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