Why Native Plants are Important
Before the time of European settlement in North America, there had been a period of thousands of years of nomadic native people inhabiting the ecosystems found throughout the continent in a symbiotic way. Native people worked with the parts and processes of these ecosystems to survive. For example, hunting of plants and animals was broadly done, but not to the point of extirpation of any species. Native people also allowed naturally occurring fires to run unabated, and learned to use fire intentionally to force game, protect encampments and regenerate plants.
After Europeans settled North American, all the co-evolutional stability of these ecosystems and people thriving together fell away as plants and animals began to be permanently removed from the landscape through excessive hunting, introduction of farming and development. Additionally, fires were stopped on the land through active suppression. These combined impacts continue in large part to this day. In Illinois, only 1/100th of 1% of our native ecosystems remain for anyone to visit, or any native species to use. Additionally, only relatively small areas throughout the nation have been reclaimed through intentional restoration efforts. Globally, we are currently in the largest period of extinctions since the dinosaurs walked the earth. For humans, there are very tangible and unpleasant outcomes to loosing diversity of life on this planet. For example, we are suffering from the degradation and reduction of healthy ecosystems with increased and more frequent flooding to name only one consequence. With less deep rooted green space, replaced with more hard surfaces, storm water has nowhere to infiltrate and instead runs off and accumulates in low lying areas.
By rethinking how we relate to the landscapes we inhabit, important and positive changes can take place. The integration of native plants where typically only a handful of familiar non-native species are planted is one small and relatively easy step we can take to reclaim some of the symbiotic benefits of working with our native ecosystems. The deep roots and above ground parts of native plants offer the following important functional benefits to us when we carefully place them in areas that resemble to some degree the historic habitats they evolved with: storm water attenuation, permanent green house gas sequestration, mitigation of soil erosion, urban heat island reduction, habitat creation, and beautification.