Native Plants & Native Wisdom

By Linda Wiggen Kraft

The two most important things we can do for our gardens, ourselves and the world is to plant native plants* and to experience the world through native wisdom. We must have both.

The ecosystem we live within is dying. The loss of insects and birds alone is alarming. Are we gardeners somewhat to blame? Unfortunately yes. A 2018 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington D.C. found that the populations of a common backyard bird, the Carolina chickadee, were only able to sustain their numbers in backyards where the plantings were made up of more than 70 percent native plants. These plants are home to caterpillars, spiders and other insects that baby birds need to be fed to survive. The study directly links the decline of a common bird to the lack of insects in nonnative planted gardens and landscapes. 

The plea for native plants in landscapes of urban, suburban and rural lands is perhaps most substantiated in a new book titled Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Written by Doug Tallamay, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware, this book shares the why and how everyone’s gardens and landscapes need to restore the habitats necessary to support life. Over 80 percent of land in our country is privately owned. Tallamay stresses that we need to create “Homegrown National Parks” where each piece of land from small urban gardens to large rural spaces together form habitats to sustain all plant, animal and human life. 

Native plantings are essential, but Native Wisdom is also needed if we are to restore and heal our world. Perhaps we would not be in the catastrophic place we are now if our way of relating to, and experience with, the world around us was based on indigenous worldviews. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is Native American. She grew up knowing some of the wisdom of her ancestors. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, and her lectures, she shares her difficulty learning the Anishinaabe language her grandfather spoke. This language viewed, and gave experience of, the natural world as being made up of animate beings not inanimate objects. Kimmerer struggled with the many descriptions of “beingness”. She asked herself how could “to be a hill”, “to be red”, “to be a Saturday” make any sense. Finally with the concept of “to be a bay” she understood. 

When “a bay” was a being, the bay became alive, she could smell the water, watch the rocks on the shore. She realized what she had been taught in school and by society was that if “a bay” is a noun it is not alive. But “to be a bay” is a verb and therefore animate and alive. Right then her understanding and connection to nature changed. She describes this awakening: “I heard the zap of synapses firing. An electric current sizzled down my arm, and practically scorched the page where that one word (to be a bay) lay.” 

How will we experience our native gardens and landscapes if we only plant them but consider them objects instead of verbs? We need both native plantings and native wisdom for our gardens and landscapes to be alive and wholly native. 

*The best native plants for each zip code in the United States can be found at https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/

Linda Wiggen Kraft is a landscape designer who creates holistic and organic gardens. She guides others to connect deeply with nature through nature journeys-forest bathing. She is also a mandala artist and creativity workshop leader. Her website and blog are at www.CreativityForThe Soul.com. Her phone is 314 504-4266.