Biodiversity, You Complete Me

It’s a two sweater night in Iowa.  It never occurred to me to wear two wool sweaters before, but it seems to be the right level of sweaters these days. After many months of being home, with all the staying put and winter, it seems some beliefs have really sunk in, like rocks in the garden.  One thing I believe these days, is that, in a native garden, the flowers, leaves, and garden design are just the very beginning of the beauty.  If you’ve ever sat out with a Joe Pye weed on an afternoon, you probably know what I mean.

Two bumblebees and a monarch walk into a bar… just joking! This is sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

There is a peaceful electricity in a native garden, a deep sense of well-being that I believe comes from togetherness.  Plants together with their insects; insects together with their plants.  People together with flowers and insects, again, surprised at all the life and blooming, buzzing, fluttering, singing, sleeping that goes on.  Togetherness in the garden: beautiful and good for the heart.

Bumblebees love Joe Pye weed. Spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee. If you ever spot one on your Joe Pye,weed, please report it to

You may have seen in the news that a late January executive order has set the U.S. on an effort to conserve 30% of U.S. land and ocean territory by 2030, in an effort to reverse the extinction crisis we are in. After decades of documented declines, across birds, frogs, insects, marine life, and more, a United Nations report on biodiversity from last year, revealed that an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction, with many expected to go extinct within decades, if humanity continues land development, agriculture, resource extraction, pollution, poaching, and letting invasive species run wild, as we have done for the last century. It is a huge undertaking, but if we want humanity to survive and flourish, we do not really have a choice. I think the native plant community’s beloved Doug Tallamy puts it best:

“Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that determine the earth’s ability to support us are run by the plants and animals around us. It is plants that generate oxygen and clean water, that create topsoil out of rock, and that buffer extreme weather events like droughts and floods. It is insect decomposers that drive the nutrient cycles on earth, allowing each new generation of plants and animals to exist.  It is pollinators that are essential to the continued existence of 80 % of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants, and it is birds and mammals that disperse the seeds of those plants and provide them with pest control services.

And now, with human-induced climate change threatening the planet, it is plants that will suck much of that excess carbon out of the air, build their tissues with it, and pump the surplus into the soil for long-term storage – if we would only put them back into our landscapes. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. “

Gardening for Life by Doug Tallamy
Little green solitary bee, climbing through Joe Pye weed flowers.

But It’s Not Too Late

“The [Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global… Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), United Nations Sustainable Development Blog

To reach the goal of 30% of U.S. land being protected, we will have to increase protected lands by 400 million acres, which is twice the size of Texas. At this point, this very beginning point, there is not yet a clear path to get there, but one thing that is clear is that the effort will need to involve private land owners (especially in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.) and people inviting nature back into places it didn’t occur to us that nature needed… like our yards, our schools, our churches, parks, our roadsides, big box stores… the list can go on and on.

When Normal is Crazy

Is this Normal or Crazy?

I took this picture near my home, but it could be anywhere in the Midwest. Non-native shrubs, mulch, and shorn grass are fairly typical of what modern Americans currently accept as adequate landscaping. But the truth is, the above is land that supports no life. Now just as a thought experiment, imagine this development operating under the 30 x 30, life-supporting paradigm. I can easily see, purple coneflowers, Joe Pye weed, sunflowers, lots of milkweed, monarchs, goldenrod, bumblebees, native grasses, crickets singing, goldfinches, a little rabbit, a little path through to a little open spot with a bench. Now, which landscape would be better for humans? Not only better, but more fun? Why have we settled for so little for so long? Point is, it is so ridiculously easy to imagine something so much better than the old normal.

Swallowtails, monarchs, bumblebees, and many others fly in for Joe Pye weed’s nectar (it’s apparently also extremely attractive to nocturnal moths). But the plant itself is a feast, providing food for the caterpillars of 41 species of butterflies and moths!

I believe native gardeners have an important role to play in getting us to the 30 x 30 goal, especially in the “only if we start now at every level” part of the equation. Because we are ready right now. We’ve been ready. We have our seeds in the fridge right now! You say you want me to plant 30% of my yard in native trees, flowers, and grass? I say, How about 50%?! (That’s the 2050 goal.) No problem! We can be the first yards to show how sharing life with nature is a more beautiful life. We can make everybody so jealous of our butterflies that they’ll want their own butterflies. We can put in pollinator gardens at our schools, churches, libraries, city halls. We can spread the word, and maybe most importantly, help build grass roots support for 30 x 30. And plant by plant, we can help show the way towards this necessary paradigm shift, a cultural awakening where we open our eyes, look at the barren fields around us, and realize: this normal is crazy.

A Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail blue morph, part of the infamous “North American Mimicry Complex,” visiting Joe Pye weed. Swallowtails seem to love Joe Pye weed.

30 x 30 is huge. Policy and power finally acknowledging that we need a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with nature, from emptying land to make way for people, to filling the world with habitat and learning to coexist. Deep down, I think most of us can sense that, right now, our culture needs just this type of change: more beauty, more kindness, more fun, more togetherness.


The U.S. commits to tripling its protected lands. Here’s how it could be done. by Sara Gibbens, National Geographic

Biden’s Historic Action on 30×30, by Alison Chase, Helen O’Shea, Kate Poole, and Zak Smith, Natural Resources Defense Council

Gardening For Life, by Doug Tallamy, Homegrown National Park

UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’, U.N. Sustainable Development Blog

Silent Skies: Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished, by Jim Daley, Scientific American

Top “10” Lists of Wildlife Plants, by Alonso Abugattas, Capital Naturalist

Bringing Nature Home: How you Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Doug Tallamy

Pollinators of Native Plants, by Heather Holms

5 replies on “Biodiversity, You Complete Me”

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