Pollinator Plants and Public Policy

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The densely packed blooms of creeping phlox make it one of the best perennials for attracting butterflies. Photo by Adobe Stock/Jill Lang

If you’re a hungry traveler in the area of Raleigh, North Carolina, you’re in luck; there are some great new places to nourish you on your journey through town. But these aren’t new restaurants for people driving through the state’s capital: They’re new plantings of native trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and groundcovers created for the benefit of bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators.

In October 2018, the Wake County Board of Commissioners announced a significant step toward celebrating their region’s natural heritage and restoring the ecological balance lost through commercial development by approving a resolution to increase the use of native plants in Wake County. The Native Plant Initiative, sponsored by Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, requires contractors to use a minimum of 70 percent native plants in landscape installations on county government projects in the 12 municipalities and unincorporated areas of Wake County, according to a county spokesperson. The county will also place signs in the installations to educate the public about the uses and benefits of native plants.

The biodiversity of Raleigh, North Carolina, comes in part from the fact that Wake County acts as the northern boundary for many plant species, and the southern boundary for many others. Photo by Adobe Stock/Mark

“In these times, it‘s hard to find a feel-good initiative that everybody can get behind,” says Hutchinson. “So, from that perspective, this is fun, it’s easy, and it’s meaningful […] not just for a species, but for an ecosystem, to start to put the ecosystem back into balance. It’s not only good for the tree and the bush, but it’s also good for the caterpillars, the insects, the birds, and the butterflies. It’s good for everything.”

In letting contracts, the county doesn’t give its designers a list of native plants they’re required to use. Instead, they refer contractors to resources such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s PLANTS Database, the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the North Carolina Native Plant Society, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s “Stormwater Design Manual.”

Defending Biodiversity

Hutchinson got the idea for the Native Plant Initiative while riding his mountain bike. He says, “I understand the uniqueness of what we have in this city, and I want people to be able to enjoy it beyond the windshield of their cars.”

The uniqueness he’s referring to is a region rich in biodiversity. Wake County is the southern boundary for many species and the northern boundary for others, according to Tom Earnhardt, who hosts the UNC-TV show Exploring North Carolina, which discusses the state’s cultural and natural history. As an example of the natural diversity, there are so many different oak species that Raleigh is called the “City of Oaks.”

Birds love serviceberry trees and the juicy fruits they produce. Photo by Adobe Stock/Brian Lasenby

Ironically, Hutchinson’s appreciation for the native flora comes from a nonnative perspective. He’s from Lubbock in West Texas, which he describes as “100 square miles of dry, flat, ancient ocean bottom where there are no trees and everything either bites, stings, or sticks. It’s where dust goes to die!” When he arrived in Raleigh about 35 years ago to work for a software company, his welcoming glimpse of this biodiversity almost sent him into sensory overload. It was love at first sight.

“From the time I drove into the city and looked at the amazing trees around the hotel, I said ‘This is where I want to live!’” He credits Earnhardt for teaching him much of what he’s learned about his adopted state’s plant life. One lesson that’s stuck with him is that ecosystems created by biodiversity can be interrupted by landscaping with nonnative plants. Insects and birds, for example, don’t feed or nest in species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers they don’t recognize.

Bumblebees and butterflies alike flock to lovely mountain laurel flowers. Photo by Adobe Stock/Samantha

Through his love for the area’s ecological richness, Hutchinson developed a determination to preserve it. In 1998, the county created a task force to figure out how to define and preserve open space. It became the Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee in 1999, and Hutchinson became its chair until he was elected county commissioner in 2014. In his role as committee chair, Hutchinson says he became the go-to guy to help Raleigh and Wake County officials win voter approval for green infrastructure and healthy community bonds. And even though his new Native Plant Initiative is just entering its second growing season, there are already success stories, from public nature reserves to community spaces.

Libraries Lead the Way

The poster child for success is a new building for the Fuquay-Varina Community Library. It’s the first of two “model” projects, with a landscape composed of 90 percent native plants, easily exceeding the 70 percent minimum required by the Initiative. Native plants used feature a wide variety of trees, including red maple (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’), yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). They also included plenty of native shrubs, such as red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), inkberry (Ilex glabra), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’), and arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum); and perennials and groundcovers, including Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

The south side of the Fuquay-Varina Community Library displays beautiful native plants, including sweet pepperbush and oakleaf hydrangea, amongst others. Photo by Wake County Staff

“With the Fuquay-Varina Community Library model project, we saw how our designers supported and embraced the Native Plant Initiative,” says Eric Staehle, senior facilities manager with Wake County’s Facilities Design & Construction (FD&C) Department. “Wake County staff are encouraged by how smoothly the process went.” Much of the credit, he says, is due to the work of CLH Design in Cary, North Carolina — the landscape architecture firm that created the landscape plan — and John de Haro, the FD&C project manager who oversaw the project.

Fuquay-Varina backed the initiative by revising and adding to its own approved plant list based on Wake County’s recommendations. That enabled Wake County to use a greater variety of native plant material on the project. “We’re excited to work with our municipalities on future projects,” explains Staehle, “and we hope to see the same level of acceptance we experienced with Fuquay-Varina and the library project.”  

The Morrisville Community Library, now under construction, is the next building project where native plants will be installed under the new policy. Natives planned for this landscape include three trees — red oak (Quercus rubra), serviceberry, and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida); three shrubs — mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), Virginia sweetspire (I. virginica ‘Little Henry’), and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia ‘Sarah’); and, as a groundcover, creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera).

Monarch butterflies can often be found roosting in evergreen trees, including eastern red cedars.  Photo by Adobe Stock/Richard & Susan Day/Danita Delimont

As both building sites are so new, officials haven’t had time to fully assess community feedback. They believe, though, that Wake County residents will make the connection between native plants at the libraries and the 100 percent native plant material they’ve recently been enjoying at Robertson Millpond Preserve and Turnipseed Nature Preserve. They’re also convinced that people will appreciate the increased use of natives for more than their natural beauty as they come to realize the new policy has cost benefits. Native plants are less expensive to maintain than nonnatives, because they can better withstand weather extremes. Officials are also pleased that contractors have been able to source native plant material at local nurseries.

When Staehle was researching how to implement Wake County’s new policy, he saw that many municipalities list the use of native species as a “preference” for new building initiatives. However, other than some in Florida and California, he didn’t find many that have made it a policy. Wake County, then, appears to be at the forefront of municipal green infrastructure techniques by requiring that native plants be used.

It’s an idea that the National League of Cities (NLC) says has great benefits. “Green infrastructure can not only improve water quality by reducing storm water runoff, but also provide a multitude of community benefits, such as improving air quality, reducing urban heat island effect, and increasing property values,” says Carolyn Berndt, NLC program director for sustainability. “Native plants can help the community better manage water resources, because native plants often require less water than nonnative plants. Furthermore, native plants are often more resistant to insects and disease, and therefore don’t require fertilizers or pesticides.”

Nixing Invasive Nonnatives

Wake County is nearing the end of its sequence of new construction projects and hasn’t settled on a list of new ones, but that hasn’t stopped Hutchinson from promoting his Native Plant Initiative. The next goal, he says, is to find a partner organization that’ll help strengthen the public’s understanding about the importance of planting native species rather than plants they typically find at gardening centers. 

At Robertson Millpond Preserve, visitors can enjoy a picnic at the shelter surrounded by native plants such as serviceberry, red oak, winterberry, and sweetspire. Photo by Wake County Staff

As part of that effort, he’s working on another idea he says is fun and quirky, and will catch everyone’s attention. He calls it his “cut down a ‘Bradford’ pear” initiative. The ‘Bradford’ pear tree (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) is one of the scourges of the native plant community. It’s native to China and Taiwan, is widely distributed across the United States, and is considered an invasive species. The cultivar ‘Bradford’ can become quite large, and produces an abundance of foul-smelling white flowers in spring on weak wood that’s susceptible to breaking.

Hutchinson’s idea is to offer a free native tree to every homeowner who cuts down a ‘Bradford’ pear at their own expense. This isn’t an original idea. He quickly admits he got the notion from Fayetteville, Arkansas, which put a “bounty” on ‘Bradford’ pears as part of an aggressive effort to decrease invasive species, and to promote native plants by offering a free tree native to the region as a ‘Bradford’ replacement. Native replacements Hutchinson is considering for Wake County include eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), oaks (Quercus spp.), maples (Acer spp.), or flowering dogwoods.

Hutchinson admits that the public doesn’t yet understand the effect of a nonnative plant like a crepe myrtle or a ‘Bradford’ pear. He also admits, “A lot of this is just making the public aware of how nice and important it is to plant native species. People say they don’t see enough butterflies. That they would like to have more birds nesting nearby, or even have more fireflies around like when they were kids. Well, all these come back to native plant species.”

Tom Oder is an independent journalist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and writes about business, sustainability, and the environment.

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