As president of the Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS) and chair of the Monroe County – Identify and Reduce Invasive Species (MC-IRIS), Ellen Jacquart simultaneously promotes removing some plants (invasives), as much as planting and protecting others (natives). If this sounds odd, read on. Jacquart has worked for decades to protect and manage natural areas throughout Indiana, working for the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, and the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy before retiring in 2016. In a time when climate change and massive loss of biodiversity can so easily feel overwhelming, Jacquart details how simple choices about what we plant, and what we don’t, can have profound impacts on our environment. Anyone with a yard can be a conservationist!
BEN VALENTINE: What is the INPS’ vision for Indiana, and how are you all working to make that a reality?
ELLEN JACQUART: We envision an Indiana whose citizens treasure and protect their native plants and the web of life that relies on them, and who use native plants in public and private landscapes. We work towards that in several ways. The first is to simply raise awareness among the public on what a native plant IS, and why they are so important. We make the connections between native plants and pollinators, and how important pollinators are to everything from our forests to our food. We share how important native plants are to birds, since native plants host the caterpillars that are the food for young birds. We follow that up with practical advice on how to establish and increase native plants in your home landscape. We use our website, social media, the INPS Journal, and presentations at our annual conference and local events to spread this information as far and wide as we can.
VALENTINE: Why are natives so important? Talk about a lawn or a commonly sold non-native flower versus a keystone native plant, like an oak tree or goldenrod. What are the differences?
JACQUART: I’ve attached a visual answer to this question above — a drawing by a very talented artist who is part of our MC-IRIS group, Mary Welz. Lawns are sterile deserts, as are most nonnative landscaping plants, like the Callery pear, burning bush, and purple wintercreeper in the drawing. Nonnative plants have few or no insect larvae that feed on them, since our native insects did not evolve with them and can’t digest their leaves. I’ll go so far as to say that a plant with no holes in its leaves is worthless. It provides nothing for insects to eat, which means there are no insects for birds to eat and feed their offspring. On the other hand, native plants will often host many different species of insects at different points in their life cycle, serving as a living buffet for passing birds and other animals. Oak is one of the champions of diversity, hosting over 4,000 different species of insects and animals.
VALENTINE: But, are there natives that are as beautiful as non-natives?
JACQUART: I’m always floored when I get this question from the public. To push back on this perception, INPS started an INPS Photo Contest two years ago. I made a poster of some of the native plant photos we’ve received and attached it to the email. I mean, look at those flowers! The truth is, native plants can be even more stunning than nonnative species. It just requires looking for them. I’ve also attached all the winners from the 2020 Photo Contest in small jpegs. If you want higher quality images of some, just let me know.
VALENTINE: So, does every reader need to rip up their entire lawn tomorrow and plant only 100% natives? Is it all or nothing?
JACQUART: Not at all. I have plenty of non-native species in my garden. However, a rough rule of thumb from Doug Tallamy is to have landscaping more than 70% native to make sure that there is enough native biomass to provide food for birds and other animals.
VALENTINE: If we want to protect a habitat, we need to deal with invasives as well, and for that, you led the Indiana Invasive Species Council's Invasive Plant Advisory Committee from 2010-2016 and are currently the chair of the Monroe County – Identify and Reduce Invasive Species (MC-IRIS). How harmful are invasives, both ecologically and economically, and why are they so important to talk about if we want to promote local biodiversity?
JACQUART: Invasive species are a huge threat to biodiversity, second only to habitat destruction according to biologist, naturalist, and writer E.O. Wilson. Once a person can identify invasive plants it becomes terribly apparent how they have infested our natural areas. Without control, invasive plants move further and further into natural areas, eliminating native plants, which are the basis of the whole web of life. The impacts ripple through the system in many different ways. Forests that are infested with Asian bush honeysuckle, for instance, have fewer native plants in the understory, fewer successful nesting songbirds, more ticks and tick-related illnesses in the area, and trees that grow much, much slower than in uninfested forests. Fortunately, invasive plants can be controlled, and there are many heartening examples of native plants coming back into areas where invasive plants are removed.
VALENTINE: Talk about Doug Tallamy’s idea of Homegrown National Park — how important is private property to the future of conservation, and how does INPS align with Tallamy’s vision?
JACQUART: Most of the US is private property; in Indiana, 96% of the land is in private hands. That means that conservation on public lands alone is not enough to make a dent in the ongoing loss of species and habitats. Even small properties can be managed to provide important native plant habitat for all kinds of pollinators, birds and other animals. Homegrown National Park is an effort by Doug Tallamy to spur people to make a difference by planting and managing for native plants on their land, creating beneficial habitat instead of sterile lawns. INPS has been making the case for the importance of native plants in Indiana for many years, and we are very excited about having a national platform like Homegrown National Park to further promote planting for biodiversity.