Grow Native Plants! A Case Study: Forsythia versus Spicebush

by Nancy Lee

Native plants and native wildlife need to be together. They are co-dependent and need to be available for each other to thrive. When we choose plants that are native to our area, we help to increase biodiversity and decrease the monoculture of the “green desert” lawns that dominate our communities. Native plants provide shelter and food to native insects, birds, and mammals. This includes the area’s pollinators, which are essential to life on earth. Overall, native plants use less pesticides and fertilizers, and this, in turn, promotes healthy soil, cleaner air, and water conservation.

A case study, comparing two plants, specifically forsythia and spicebush, helps to highlight how native plants and native wildlife, together in the same area, are better for each environment. Both forsythia and spicebush are early spring bloomers with bright yellow flowers. There are at least fourteen different species of forsythia (Forsythia suspensa, Forsythia viridissima) that were brought to North America from Asia. These plants were planted in home gardens and they have spread far and wide in the wild. Our native bees do not pollinate forsythia, its leaf and flower shape are prohibitive. The forsythia provides little habitat value for our insects, birds, and mammals. The growth of each forsythia plant takes up space where native and more useful plants could flourish.

The spicebush (Lindera benzoin), on the other hand, is also an early bloomer with bright yellow flowers. Like forsythia, the spicebush is easy to grow, and it is not attractive to deer. However, the spicebush is native to the northeast United States. Since it is a native plant, it provides food and shelter to native butterflies, moths, birds, insects, and mammals. It is an important early spring forage source for native bees. All parts of the spicebush are edible, and it has historically been an important medicinal and culinary herb for Native Americans and early colonists. Dried red spicebush berries are known as Appalachian allspice. This rich and aromatic culinary spice was used as allspice during the Civil War.

The vibrant red spicebush berries appear in the fall and native birds find them quite delicious. The spicebush attracts a beautiful butterfly known as the spicebush swallowtail. This wonderful insect is a trickster in both its early larval stage and as an adult. The spicebush leaves serve as an important food source for the butterfly’s larvae. The larvae closely resembles a small snake, complete with eyes, to ward off predators. Its beautiful black, white, and orange wings as a butterfly is similar in looks with the pipevine swallowtail that is very distasteful to birds, another way that the spicebush swallowtail fools its predators again.

As you can see when you take a closer look at your choice of plants, the native plants always are the best choice. They provide food and shelter for our native wildlife. With the increase of non-native plants our native wildlife populations decrease and weaken our ecosystems. As we remove non-native plants in our landscapes, especially those plants that are invasive, we help to improve the vital habitats for many insects, birds, and animals that help to keep our environment vibrant, strong, and healthy.

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