Native Plants and Natural Shorelines
Hundreds of years ago, before modern settlement disturbed its natural habitat, Wisconsin was covered in native grasses, flowers, and trees indigenous to our region that, over time, have developed complex relationships with the local organisms and ecosystem. Losing one species in this complex web can have huge impacts on other species and the local environment. While much has been lost, we can help replenish this species diversity by incorporating native plants into our parks, yards, schools and other urban and rural locations.
Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soils, are drought tolerant, and disease resistant. Once established, native plants are aesthetically pleasing and require little watering, fertilizing and mowing. The reduced maintenance can lead to significant cost savings when compared to labor-intensive turf grass. They also provide important ecosystem services such as improved water quality and habitat and food for local wildlife, including numerous pollinator species.
Impacts on Water Quality
In natural, native plant-covered landscapes, rain soaks into the ground gradually. Today, much of the land is covered by impervious surfaces – such as streets, parking lots, roofs, compacted turf grass, and heavily tilled agricultural fields – where the water cannot soak into the ground. Instead, water runoff flows over the land, picking up pollutants, sediment, and nutrients along the way and transports them to streams, rivers, and lakes. One of the nutrients transported with runoff is phosphorus which can cause excessive algae growth in water bodies. Algal blooms are unsightly, pungent, and potentially dangerous. People often do not want to swim, boat, or fish in this water, which is detrimental to local economies that rely on tourism. The algae can also produce toxins that may cause skin rashes, respiratory infections, stomach problems, paralysis, and (in worst cases) death of humans and animals. The deep root systems of native plants help decrease soil compaction and infiltrate water back into the ground, reducing stormwater runoff and the transport of excess nutrients and pollutants to nearby water bodies.
Impacts on Pollinators
In their 1996 book, The Forgotten Pollinators, Buchmann and Nabhan estimated that animal pollinators are needed for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops. Each of us depends on these industrious pollinators in a practical way to provide us with the wide range of foods we eat. In addition, pollinators are part of the intricate web that supports the biological diversity in the natural ecosystems that help sustain our quality of life.
Unfortunately, the numbers of both native pollinators and domesticated bee populations are declining. They are threatened by habitat loss, disease, and the excessive and inappropriate use of pesticides.
Planting native plants and reducing pesticide applications that often accompany the traditional lawn maintenance regime can provide important food sources and habitat for the pollinators we so heavily rely upon. Appendix C of the Dane County Pollinator Task Force Report (PDF) includes lists of Wisconsin native pollinator plants.
Sources for Native Plants
PlantDane! (My Fair Lakes)
UW-Arboretum Native Plant Sale (UW-Arboretum)
Local native plant nurseries
Owners of lake and river shoreline properties are increasingly restoring a buffer or natural vegetation along the shore, and bringing back the ecological habitats that are reduced or lost by maintaining traditional lawns up to the water’s edge.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has prepared a quick guide to assessing the health of your property’s shoreline. There you can also find a 48-page manual that describes the importance of shoreline buffers and step-by-step instructions on how to assess your shoreline.
If you are interested in bringing back more of the ecological benefits of a diverse natural shoreline, there are many resources to help you. Visiting UW-Extension’s shoreland stewardship and restoration page is a great place to start. The Dane County Land and Water Resources Department has a list of acceptable native species for shoreland areas (PDF). You can also check out My Fair Lakes page on waterfront landscapes.