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Native Plants: Insects

Seen any bugs lately?

native penstemon cultivar
Penstemon 'blackbeard'

My yoga instructor has an adorable two year old. She told me she had to use her "internal cringe" when her daughter, ever the inquisitive one, picked up newly emerged cicadas and held them about two inches from her face to get a good look. It would be hard not to be aware of insects right around now in many parts of the central Chesapeake watershed!

I think we all have an "internal cringe" about something. My internal cringe is for an insect commonly found in south Florida where I grew up. My family would say I need to work on the internal part. Insects are one of the most challenging parts about gardening with native plants to explain. But once you get it, you get it for life. There is no going back.

I get a lot of questions about insects on plants - none of which I am qualified to answer. In most cases, it is enough to know the most critical difference between a native plant and a non-native or ornamental plant, is the native plant feeds insects. Some native trees feed hundreds of types of insects. That matters because insects are in serious decline as are certain birds who live off of those insects. Scientists tell us a big reason for the decline is loss of habitat and our native plant gardens rebuild that habitat!

Another way to look at it is the number of caterpillars it takes to grow a chickadee from hatchling to fledgling. Dr. Doug Tallamy tells us several hundred caterpillars a day! Gardening with plants that caterpillars can eat makes a difference.

Our insects have evolved here over thousands of years and the vast majority can't eat non-native, ornamental plants. That is what made ornamental plants so popular in the landscaping industry: they are local insect resistant.

Yet another way to look at it is to think of building your garden as a buffet for insects. Right now, penstemons are beginning to bloom. Our flower stems were initially covered with aphids. I was not the least bit concerned though because other bugs, including ladybugs, eat those aphids. A few days after seeing loads of aphids, I went back out to take a photo for this post and could only find a single aphid. If you grow monarch's delight, you will likely see these orange and black bugs on the stems in August. Take a look at this wild violet leaf. I am guessing caterpillars are eating them. That's a good thing. When you step back, the eaten leaves aren't even apparent.

If you garden without pesticides and plant native plants that are neonicotinoid free, you will have a garden full of insects and that's very beneficial. To read more about why you should buy plants that are grown without neonicotinoids, please see this information from the University of Maryland Extension Service. Gardening without pesticides also means forgoing mosquito spraying services, even those using a naturally occurring product, because it is still toxic and does not distinguish between mosquitoes and the many, many other beneficial insects.

Ok, I confess. While researching information for this post, I came upon a photo from the University of Maryland's "Cicada Crew" that created another cringe for me: cicada emergence cookies. No thanks but I applaud those who say yes!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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