Native Plants Around Campus

By: Sarah Leonard (Reporter '23)


As the weather gets nicer and we spend more time outside at Friends’ Central, many of us have been appreciating the nature around campus. To ensure that we can admire a naturally beautiful campus for years to come, we must be conscious of how our actions affect the wildlife around us, as well as the earth as a whole. One of the most pressing global issues is how to counteract the effects of climate change, and the new president Joe Biden has proposed plans for two trillion dollars to be allocated for the cause. Along with his aim for a greener infrastructure, including environmentally friendly jobs, housing, and transportation, Biden has pledged to conserve 30 percent of the U.S.’s lands and oceans by 2030—this had been dubbed the 30-by-30 plan. This is an incredibly important step in protecting the biodiversity of our ecosystems and preventing extinction. Another important aspect of the plan is trying to restore the leadership of indigenous peoples in the fight to conserve land and species. Rather than limiting protected territory to a completely human-free zone, the aim is to allow indigenous peoples to maintain the land as they have in the past.

The 30-by-30 plan aims to protect spaces already populated by threatened species, but supporting native species in areas around us is equally crucial. As we learned in the 15-minute lesson a few weeks ago, many of the typical garden plants familiar to us are not actually helpful to native ecosystems. While the majority of these plants aren’t necessarily aggressively spreading and competing against indigenous species, they aren’t as helpful to our biome as native species would be. Many flowers that are thought to be especially pollinator-friendly, like lilacs and butterfly bushes, for example, are not native and are not nearly as productive as native wildflowers such as milkweed and goldenrod. One popular tree used often for landscaping, called the tree of heaven, is one of the host plants for the spotted lanternfly, an all-too-familiar invasive insect wreaking havoc on native trees.

FCS has been striving to create productive gardens filled with plants endemic to Pennsylvania over the past few years. Students at the Lower School have helped to plant meadow grasses and flowers along the edges of playing fields and the retention basin on campus. The wildflower meadow next to the FCC, planted by middle-school students in the spring of 2018, “immediately became a hit with pollinators through the entire growing season,” according to Mr. Guides, who is often seen working there. As has been explored this year by the FCS Science Core Team through the work of scientist Robin Hopkins, the relationship between pollinators and plants is one of the most important in our biosphere. The dwindling bee population is a critical exemplar of the damaging results of interfering with such relationships, as bees are not only essential to their surrounding ecosystems but also our food sources. There are many different causes for this population decline, but the loss of habitat and the use of pesticides are two that must be addressed. Although many may think of honey bees as the main pollinators in our area, Mr. Guides informed me that there are over 4,500 species in the U.S. alone, 437 of which can be found in Pennsylvania. These bees are primarily solitary, burrowing into the ground instead of creating hives, and these are the bees most affected by habitat loss due to over-development.

The meadow next to the FCC while in bloom

The last few decades have borne witness to a similarly alarming decline in the biodiversity of moths and butterflies, especially monarchs. This decline also mainly stems from the use of pesticides in agriculture, as this leads to a decrease in milkweed surrounding the farms, which is where monarchs lay their eggs. To counteract this impact, planting milkweed in meadows and gardens (as well as wildflowers) can be a great way to help monarchs and other pollinators. “We are now realizing that pristine green lawns are not a beneficial ecosystem for wildlife and are really deserts for wildlife,” commented Mr. Guides. “We need to remove some or maybe all non-native plants such as lawns which will also help reduce the use of fossil fuels and decrease the pollution we generate for maintenance.” Not only do these lawns not provide food or habitat for native species, but they also call for vast amounts of water and fertilizers to grow, and lawnmowers involved in their upkeep create sizable air pollution. Pesticides used in farming also have a considerable influence on wildlife, as the insects poisoned by them will be eaten by birds and bats who will, in turn, be poisoned too. This enacts a ripple effect harmful to the ecosystem as a whole, as fewer predators lead to more prey, which subsequently leads to more pesticides being used. Planting native plants, on the other hand, helps to restore habitat and food sources for insects like caterpillars, benefiting the entire food chain, as birds and other animals who feed on them will be able to reproduce more.

The FCC meadow

The adverse effects of these chemical treatments are not limited to habitats on land; runoff, especially in areas with more concrete and impervious surfaces, can bring these toxins into streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. Excess nutrients can cause algae blooms, which eat up all the dissolved oxygen and create dead zones where no aquatic life can survive. To combat runoff and protect the Indian Creek near campus, a middle school service group added a rain garden next to the library in 2018. Rain gardens can help to soak up the surplus of runoff so that it doesn’t cause overflow or algae blooms in nearby streams. This rain garden was unfortunately removed due to plumbing problems but, hopefully, more will be able to be planted in the future.

Although reducing the effects of human-made changes in the atmosphere and landscapes seems like a lot to tackle, little steps like these can help. By just planting native plants on campus, we have created a tiny ecosystem: a food source or a home to many different species. It might not seem like much to us, but all of the plants and animals will be grateful for its benefits.