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Native Plants of the Elizabeth River

Plant for Wildlife with Native Plants

Plants are the foundation of wildlife habitat in any ecosystem; including a backyard or garden. Plants and wildlife in a region evolved together over millions of years and are called native species to that region.

Native plants provide food for wildlife in the form of fruits, nuts, seeds, nectar, pollen, sap and foliage, as well as the insects and other prey species they support. They also provide wildlife with cover and places to raise their young.

Native plant communities provide habitat for wildlife in all seasons. Since native plants are adapted to the local soil and climate they don't require wasteful watering, fertilizing or pesticides once established. For these reasons, the best way to provide habitat for wildlife is to plant species native to your region.

Why the Elizabeth River Needs Habitat

The costs to the health of the river, meanwhile, have been significant. To accommodate shipping, the Elizabeth River channel has been dredged to twice its original depth. To make way for urban development, the river's shores have been filled to an average of two-thirds the original width.  An estimated 50 percent of tidal wetlands have been filled or drained in the watershed since World War II. The shores of the river are bulk-headed for as much as six miles at a stretch, eliminating the trees and other vegetation that serve as wildlife habitat and natural filters of pollution.

The loss of habitat in the Elizabeth River watershed impacts more than Hampton Roads. The Executive Council of the Chesapeake Bay Program, composed of the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington D.C., and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, have signed a directive designating the Elizabeth River as one of three toxic "Regions of Concern" for the Chesapeake Bay. The Elizabeth's problems cripple the river in it's role as a nursery and feeding ground for the bay “one of the largest and most productive estuaries in the world." The paucity of habitat also hampers the Elizabeth River watershed as an effective stopover on the Atlantic Flyway, a major route for hundreds of species of migratory birds that rely on coastal habitat to rest and refuel on long flights.

In 1995, citizens from all walks of life, serving on study committees of the fledgling, non-profit Elizabeth Rive Project, identified the loss of wildlife habitat as one of the four most serious problems affecting the urban river. Scientists serving on the committees found "severe stress" in all levels of the ecosystem. 

While the committees identified other, equally serious problems such as contaminated sediments, pollution from industrial discharges, and pollution from storm water runoff, all of the contribute to habitat loss. Overall, wildlife on the Elizabeth and the world over face no greater threat than loss of habitat, in all its various forms. To learn more, view the Elizabeth River Project's Wildlife Habitat Guide.

The Problems Posed by Exotics

Many of the plants available for sale at your local garden center are native to other parts of the world. When planted in regions where they are not native such plants are called exotic species (or nonnative, introduced, or alien species).

Unfortunately, many exotic plants do not provide wildlife with food, cover or places to raise young. Those that do offer an element of habitat typically do not provide the entire range of seasonal resources that native plants provide. Many exotics spread prolifically, escaping the garden and invading the surrounding natural areas.  Such invasive species out-compete and eliminate native plants upon which wildlife depend.

Those exotics that don't become invasive often have the opposite problem: requiring extra water, fertilizer and pesticides in order to survive, which wastes resources and causes pollution. Exotic plants can also introduce and spread diseases that kill native species or make the landscape more prone to fire than the native vegetation. 

Finally, because many exotic plants are not palatable, they don't support adequate numbers of insects which are a crucial food source for birds and many other wildlife species. While many exotic plants are perfectly well behaved when used in the garden, as more and more land is being developed, diverse native plant communities that support wildlife are replaced with exotic species that don't.

This can pose a real problem for wildlife, which cannot find the resources needed to survive in a landscape dominated by barren lawns, exotic ornamentals and weedy invasive species. In addition to attracting wildlife, if we want to restore diversity and the critical components of our ecosystems, we need to restore locally native plants to our gardens and communities.

Restoring Habitat with Native Plants

You can grow your own native plants or purchase them at nurseries. Never dig plants from the wild or purchase from a nursery that does so, unless it is part of an authorized plant rescue from a development site where the plants are slated for destruction. Collecting seed from natives in your area is one way to preserve the unique local "wild" variety or genotype. It also ensures that your plants are the best adapted to the local environment. Just make sure to leave plenty of seed for wildlife to eat and for the plant to reseed itself. Some nurseries propagate local genotypes from seed or cuttings.

If you can't purchase or grow local wild genotypes, using cultivated varieties of native plants is an acceptable alternative in our gardens and landscapes. While they won't help preserve the local genetic variety of the species, they will provide for wildlife and are far better.

One of the best things that you can do to help wildlife is to eliminate and replace problematic exotics with native species.