I will admit that I love flowers. I also love gardening. I am not the most proficient or the neatest of gardeners, and I have a taste for the less than manicured bed.
Why do most of us garden? I think there is a combination of an appreciation for the plants themselves and their attributes of beauty such as foliage, shape, stem color and, of course, their flowers. We wish to surround ourselves with the beauty of plants. We do so by in a sense, playing God on our little acre (or 1 /3 of an acre in my case). This is not altogether bad. But any time we pretend to be omnipotent, a little bit of humility is a good thing.
There are two aspects of our obsession with flowers that we have to think about: 1) do they bloom just for us, and 2) do the plants in our gardens exist in a vacuum separate from the surrounding environment? The answer to both questions is no.
The flowering part of a plant contains the sexual reproductive organs. Sexual reproduction allows for variation which helps plants fit in their environment and promotes the long-term survival of the species. Many types of plants reproduce sexually. Angiosperms, or plants which have a covered seed and often have showy flowers, appear in fossil records some 140 million years ago. There is no coincidence in the fact that the explosion of flowering plants about 100 million years ago corresponds closely with the rise of many of the colonial insects such as ants and bees. The basic fact is that the whole reason for producing those physiologically expensive showy flowers is to attract pollinators which will greatly enhance the plants’ chances of successfully reproducing.
So there you have it. As much as we may appreciate flowering plants and arrange them in our yard to admire their beauty, they do not flower for us; they flower for the lowly insects. What’s more, when the plant goes to seed, its seed form is often designed to attract animals to eat it, thus increasing the chances that the seeds will be dispersed to favorable habitats.
These facts lead to the answer of the second question: plants in our gardens do interact with their surrounding ecosystem to a very high degree. They provide structure both above and below the soil. They provide cover. And they provide food in their stems, foliage, flowers and seeds. If soil is an ecosystem’s foundation, plants are the backbone.
Everything we do in our yards has an effect. Because areas around towns and cities are made up of many small lots, the plants in those lots make up the structure for the local ecosystem. That is why it is so important to consider what we plant.
I have felt honored this winter with the daily visits to my yard by yellowrumped warblers and at least three species of sparrows. I have no bird feeders; instead, they come to forage on and around my plants. The cedars behind my house which once formed a farm fence line provide a nightly roost for many bird species and gray squirrels. The hummingbird moths that come each summer to drink nectar are amazing to watch. The importance of this backyard habitat in a time when almost every ecosystem and habitat in North America has been altered or fragmented cannot be underestimated.
As we labor in our gardens and walk in the stream valleys this spring we need to remember that although we appreciate the beauty of the flowers, they do not bloom for us. The plants are trying to complete their reproductive cycles and we are merely bystanders to the interactions between the plants and their pollinators, seed dispersers and their predators. However, as humans we shape our local environment to suite our desires. The choices we make can determine whether a species survives or goes locally extinct. So I urge you this year to fully enjoy the flora, but to also keep the fauna in mind while you dig.