It was excitement about individual species that first got me interested in native plants, native ecosystems, and propagation. I found an exquisite Pasqueflower popping up through the snow on an April morning and having identified it I began to notice them all over the place. Soon I spotted Sagebrush Buttercups, so bright and cheerful hugging the ground with a blaze of yellow, and then began to notice the hillsides covered with them as we drove by. Then there were the Yellow Bells with their drooping heads that decorated the grassy fields. I was hooked. (OK, I’m somewhat compulsive.)
I continued to identify more species and got to know quite a few of Montana’s native wildflowers, but it wasn’t until several years ago that I began to pay attention not only to individual species but to the groups of plants around me. I still pay attention to individual plants but I am also looking at where plants are growing, which plants are growing in close proximity, and at evidence of relationships between them. I’m seeing with new eyes.
Plants are part of intricate systems that are constantly working to balance forces within populations. Each plant has it’s niche in a particular habitat. Deep rooted species send their roots beneath fibrous rooted plants. Tall plants provide shade for shorter species. Ground covers cool the earth and hold moisture. Plants have successive bloom times to attract pollinators throughout the season. Early bloomers senesce leaving space for late bloomers. They all work together! How cool is that?
Of course it’s not all that easy to keep an ecosystem and/or a plant community in balance. Drought, predation, fire, and climate change can all create changes that plants must adapt to or die. These adaptations can create dramatic shifts in the composition of plant communities.
Even in our gardens this happens as species disappear or a single plant species takes over. Our gardening goal is to achieve a balance between plant species. The best way to accomplish this is to mimic the local native plant communities around us, or at least to mimic those in similar habitats to our own. Mother Nature has done the hard work for us, we need only to pay attention to how she has done it.
Surveying local native plant communities periodically throughout the season gives us the best idea of what species coexist within a habitat. What continues to amaze me is the diversity and number of species found in even the smallest habitat. A square yard may contain dozens of plant species!
So, while you are observing those incredible native plants on your next walk, try looking through a new set of eyes and notice the plant communities.