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The Rise — and Beauty — of the Native Plant

The Rise — and Beauty — of the Native Plant

In an era of climate change, homeowners and landscapers are learning what ecologists have known for decades: It’s time to shed the mighty American lawn in favor of native plants and perennials.

One late summer day, a monarch butterfly crawled from its chrysalis in a suburban Maryland garden, stretched open two orange wings to dry in the sun and took flight. It tarried in the garden for a while, stopping to bask in the sunlight and slurp nectar from a row of inviting milkweed. Soon it was gone, joining millions of other monarchs on a long, perilous migration southward.

Thrust down the Atlantic coast by warm-air currents, the voyaging monarchs sought plants along the way for nourishment and rest, including nectar-producing perennials such as smooth blue asters or seaside goldenrods. With little refuge to be found among the stretches of seemingly endless suburban grass lawns and paved roads, many died. Survivors pressed on, fluttering over the Deep South and into Texas. By winter, they reached the cool, oyamel fir forests of central Mexico, an incredible transnational journey for a creature the size of a credit card.

The monarch’s sojourn began in the front yard of Janet and Jeff Crouch in the Beech Creek neighborhood of Columbia, Md., a tidy planned community between Washington and Baltimore. It wasn’t an accident that the butterfly began its life there: For more than 20 years, the Crouches have cultivated a garden full of plants native to the Mid-Atlantic that attract wildlife, including the endangered monarchs and other pollinators. Many species of caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed leaves, and butterflies consume nectar from natives, including wild bergamots, yarrows and joe-pye weed.

Ecologists have been touting native plants for decades. As climate change escalates, are American homeowners and landscapers finally ready to listen?