This summer, I finished a project begun when my family moved into our current house in the spring of 2012 — replacing the massive privet hedge along our back fence with native shrubs.
Privet is unwelcome at our place because it’s both exotic, meaning it didn’t grow here until people brought it, and invasive, meaning it tends to take over in natural areas where it’s introduced. To me, it’s unattractive because it serves no good purpose from an ecological perspective.
You might wonder that it has taken seven years to replace a row of bushes, so let me explain. To begin with, it was a long row, since our house sits on a double lot, and it would have been painful for me to pry open my wallet far enough to buy that many replacement plants all at once. In addition, those privet bushes had apparently been in place a long time; they were big and they didn’t come out easily.
The system I developed for removing them was to cut down a section and kill the stumps with herbicide one year, then dig them out and replant in that spot the next. But mostly this project stretched out because I enjoy experimenting with landscaping options to see what works where, and that takes time.
I favor native plants that serve multiple functions, so early on, I put in some shrubs and small trees I find visually attractive that also offered the potential to produce a little food — wild currants and a couple of paw paw trees.
Alas, although some of the currants now produce an abundance of berries, they’re not something you or I would normally eat without processing and sweetening. Our two Labradors, on the other hand, enjoy the currants straight from the bush, so the currants are ceded to them.
The paw paws are another story. They were small when I put them in, and because I neglected to install protective cages around them, they were nibbled to stumps by rabbits in each of their first two winters. A growth spurt in their third summer finally put them out of the rabbits’ reach, and now they’re twice my height. They also now flower in the spring, but to date have produced no fruit.
The issue here is a lack of pollination.
Since paw paws are pollinated by carrion flies, a friend suggested leaving some roadkill in the yard to attract them, but I’ve not resorted to that yet — and never could, really, because Labradors.
More important to me in the choice of shrubs for the yard than the possibility they’ll produce food for people is what food they’ll produce to feed insects and other wildlife; that is, how they’ll contribute to local biodiversity.
Toward that end, and because I’m a sucker for large, showy insects, spicebush is well-represented among the shrubs I’ve planted. Spicebush is an important host for the caterpillars of spicebush swallowtails, which, for my money, are even more interesting to look at than the adult butterflies. When they’re small their mottled, shiny skin makes them resemble bird poop on a leaf. But as they grow, they turn the color of the leaf and develop large spots that look like eyes and pass themselves off as little snakes.
According to a native plant website being developed by the National Wildlife Federation, spicebush is also host to the caterpillars of no fewer than 10 species of butterflies and moths in central Illinois. In turn, these caterpillars are an important source of food to numerous species of birds and other wildlife.
And get this. Most of the other shrubs and small trees I’ve used to replace our privet hedge support a far greater variety of the insect life on which other wildlife ultimately depends. The champion among them is wild plum, which can host the larval stages of more than 300 different moths and butterflies.
We’ve always felt fortunate that the birding in our yard is so fantastic, especially during spring migration. But as I’ve written this column, I’ve started to wonder if maybe we’re not creating some of our own luck with what we’ve planted.
A note: Unfortunately, the best opportunity for buying native trees and shrubs in Champaign-Urbana has already passed this year, that’s the sale conducted by the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist organization. But odds are good that will be back next summer.