Weekly Feature

2016-05-18 / Lifestyles

How does your GARDEN GROW?

Award-winning author talks native plants, biodiversity during UB visit
by Bryan Jackson
Cheektowaga Editor

For years, fluffy, green lawns have stood alongside white picket fences, cars and 2.5 kids as pre-eminent symbols of American middle-class normality.

Keeping lawns well-manicured means mowing, watering and weeding, and the steady hiss of Roundup sprayers each summer has become the death knell for the monarch butterfly.

Monarchs have a special relationship with milkweeds, meaning the butterflies’ lifecycle depends almost entirely on the puffy-flowered, fast-spreading plants often found dotting unmowed tracts of highway medians. However, as humans have continued to shrink the areas in which milkweeds are allowed, monarch populations have plunged some 96 percent since the late 1970s, according to Doug Tallamy, author and professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

Tallamy, who spoke May 10 at the UB Center for the Arts as part of the Western New York Land Conservancy’s speaker series, said a vast majority of insects subsist on these monarch-milkweed-type special relationships, and those specializations are now haunting these species.

“In today’s world, specialization has become a curse because we’re not paying attention to those relationships when we move plants all around,” he said. “When we bring in a plant from Asia, and we put it in our yard, nothing has had the chance to develop the specialized relationships with that plant. So, it sits there. Looks pretty, but it doesn’t do much.”

Throughout his presentation, “Rebuilding Nature’s Relationships at Home,” Tallamy stressed the importance of cultivating native plants, rather than invasive, nonnative species, in home gardens and public places to rejuvenate and stabilize area ecosystems. Tallamy said concentrating on planting native species helps native insects, which are foundational to food webs that eventually affect humans.

“A world without insects is a world without biological diversity, and [biologist and author] E.O. Wilson told us decades ago that a world without biological diversity is a world without humans,” he said. “That’s why this is an important message for everybody, not just the tree-huggers, everybody. We absolutely need the biological diversity out there because that’s what runs our ecosystems.”

Jajean Rose-Burney, development director for the Western New York Land Conservancy, said preserving and restoring native ecosystems has always been a priority for the conservancy, but the push to do more on work adding native plants and removing invasive ones on land it owns is becoming a new point of emphasis.

“The argument for that is pretty simple: Our native wildlife, which is declining, need native plants. Our native plants, which are declining, are running out of space; invasive plants are, in a lot of ways, the problem,” he said. “And so trying to get rid of invasive plants, trying to use native plants, is one way of restoring ecological health.”

Despite the efforts of the conservancy, and other groups such as Buffalo Niagara River Keeper, WNY Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management and Buffalo Audubon Society, to name a few, efforts to restore and conserve local biodiversity need support and momentum. It’s a fact not lost on Nancy Smith, the conservancy’s executive director.

“Organic gardening was kind of a fringe thing maybe 20 years ago … and now it’s not, so let’s have this happen with native plants,” she said during her closing remarks after Tallamy’s presentation.


Monarch butterflies, which are milkweed specialists, have faced major population decline, highlighting the consequences of failing to protect native plants, according to author and professor Doug Tallamy, right. Monarch butterflies, which are milkweed specialists, have faced major population decline, highlighting the consequences of failing to protect native plants, according to author and professor Doug Tallamy, right. Judging by the applause from the 200 or so people in attendance, Smith’s charge is already taking root.

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