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Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

4.5/5 (28 ratings)
570 pages
5 hours
Sep 1, 2009


“A fascinating study of the trees, shrubs, and vines that feed the insects, birds, and other animals in the suburban garden.” —The New York Times
As development and habitat destruction accelerate, there are increasing pressures on wildlife populations. In Bringing Nature Home, Douglas W. Tallamy reveals the unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife—native insects cannot, or will not, eat alien plants. When native plants disappear, the insects disappear, impoverishing the food source for birds and other animals.
But there is an important and simple step we can all take to help reverse this alarming trend: everyone with access to a patch of earth can make a significant contribution toward sustaining biodiversity by simply choosing native plants. By acting on Douglas Tallamy's practical and achievable recommendations, we can all make a difference.
Sep 1, 2009

About the author

Doug Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored 97 research publications and has taught insect-related courses for 40 years. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. His book Bringing Nature Home, published by Timber Press in 2007, was awarded the 2008 Silver Medal by the Garden Writers’ Association. Among his awards are the Garden Club of America Margaret Douglas Medal for Conservation and the Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence, the 2018 AHS B. Y. Morrison Communication Award, and the 2019 Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award.

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Bringing Nature Home - Douglas W. Tallamy

Praise for Bringing Nature Home

Reading this book will give you a new appreciation of the natural world—and how much wild creatures need gardens that mimic the disappearing wild.

—The Minneapolis Star Tribune

An informative and engaging account of the ecological interactions between plants and wildlife, this fascinating handbook explains why exotic plants can hinder and confuse native creatures, from birds and bees to larger fauna.

—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

A fascinating study of the trees, shrubs, and vines that feed the insects, birds, and other animals in the suburban garden.

—The New York Times

Provides the rationale behind the use of native plants, a concept that has rapidly been gaining momentum. . . . The text makes a case for native plants and animals in a compelling and complete fashion.

—The Washington Post

Tallamy explains eloquently how native plant species depend on native wildlife.

—San Luis Obispo Tribune

"[Bringing Nature Home] will persuade all of us to take a look at what is in our own yards with an eye to how we, too, can make a difference. It has already changed me."

—Traverse City Record-Eagle

"[Bringing Nature Home] delivers an important message for all gardeners: Choosing native plants fortifies birds and other wildlife and protects them from extinction."

—WildBird magazine

A compelling argument for the use of native plants in gardens and landscapes.

—Landscape Architecture

An essential guide for anyone interested in increasing biodiversity in the garden.

—American Gardener

A mockingbird surveys his territory, making sure no other birds are eating the insects it contains.

Bringing Nature Home




Foreword by Rick Darke


Portland • London

Mention of trademark, proprietary product, or vendor does not constitute a guarantee or warranty of the product by the publisher or author and does not imply its approval to the exclusion of other products or vendors.

Copyright © 2007 by Douglas W. Tallamy. All rights reserved.

Photographs are by the author unless otherwise credited.

The Haseltine Building

133 S.W. Second Avenue, Suite 450, Portland, Oregon 97204-3527


2 The Quadrant, 135 Salusbury Road

London NW6 6RJ


eISBN: 9781604691467

The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

A catalog record for this book is also available from the British Library.




1. Restoring Natives to Suburbia: A Call to Action

2. The Vital New Role of the Suburban Garden

3. No Place to Hide

4. Who Cares about Biodiversity?

5. Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?

6. What Is Native and What Is Not?

7. The Costs of Using Alien Ornamentals

8. Creating Balanced Communities

9. Gardening for Insect Diversity

10. Blending In with the Neighbors

11. Making It Happen

12. What Should I Plant?

13. What Does Bird Food Look Like?

14. Answers to Tough Questions

Afterword: The Last Refuge

Appendix 1: Native Plants with Wildlife Value and Desirable Landscaping Attributes by Region

Appendix 2: Host Plants of Butterflies and Showy Moths

Appendix 3: Experimental Evidence




Once in a long while a book appears that fundamentally changes the way we think about our gardens and their role in the larger landscape. Provocative and powerfully persuasive, Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home accomplishes this with grace and humor, blending solid ecological science and human social science to outline a modern recipe for inclusive habitat. Tallamy recognizes the changing dynamics of our world and suggests how individual gardeners, collectively, can protect and conserve the local biological diversity that is truly vital and irreplaceable.

Bringing Nature Home is a book many of us have been waiting for. So much more than a push for native plants, it articulates the broad interdependency of living relationships and literally redefines gardens as the new Nature. Tallamy tackles the potentially grim subjects of habitat destruction and resultant species loss and turns them into inspiring stories full of hope and opportunity. Drawing on a lifetime of experience as naturalist and observer, scientist and gardener Doug Tallamy writes with real familiarity about the sensory richness, vibrancy, and sustenance inherent in landscapes that are truly full of life.

Rich in concept and detail, this book asks and answers essential questions for modern gardeners inclined to good stewardship. How can we adjust our planting palette to be both beautiful and environmentally useful? How much more does a local oak species contribute to habitat richness than an out-of-ecological-context exotic tree? What do violets and fritillary butterflies, or pawpaws and zebra swallowtails have in common? Where might tomorrow’s species come from? Spending some time with Bringing Nature Home and its wealth of revelatory moments is certain to enrich your understanding of how connected and contributing good gardens can be.

—Rick Darke


Occasionally we encounter a concept so obvious and intuitive that we have never thought to articulate it, so close to our noses that we could not see it, so entangled with our everyday experiences that we did not recognize it. In this book, I address several such concepts. Primarily, the wild creatures we enjoy and would like to have in our lives will not be here in the future if we take away their food and the places they live. I examine how we threaten their survival by trading our wild lands for uncontrolled expansion. And I emphasize the obvious consequence of that trade: in too many areas of our country there is no place left for wildlife but in the landscapes and gardens we ourselves create.

I also introduce ideas that are perhaps not so obvious. All plants are not created equal, particularly in their ability to support wildlife. Most of our native plant-eaters are not able to eat alien plants, and we are replacing native plants with alien species at an alarming rate, especially in the suburban gardens on which our wildlife increasingly depends. My central message is that unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim.

Fortunately, two points of optimism temper this gloomy prediction. First and foremost, it is not yet too late to save most of the plants and animals that sustain the ecosystems on which we ourselves depend. Second, restoring native plants to most human-dominated landscapes is relatively easy to do.

Although I do suggest approaches here and there, this is not a how-to book; there are many other fine references on how to select and grow natives in different parts of the country. Nor is this a book about landscaping per se. I am not posing as a landscape architect, and I am not skilled in landscape design. I am simply proposing a justification for the liberal use of native plants in the landscape that has not yet been clearly articulated. I hope the reasoning presented in this book is logical and convincing, and maybe even entertaining.

I would like to thank my wife, Cindy, for keeping me on course in this and all other endeavors, as well as for her exceptional editorial skills and willingness to turn our property into a research station. For ideas, factual accuracy, advice, encouragement, and technical help, I also thank Tina Alban, Mary Ann Brown, Ed Bruno, Rick Darke, Vince D’Amico, Dale Hendricks, Bethany Plyler, Dot Plyler, and Jim Plyler, Kimberley Shropshire, Melinda Zoehrer, and all those I’ve met at conferences whose interest in these ideas has been my constant motivation.


Restoring Natives to Suburbia: A Call to Action

Gardeners enjoy their hobby for many reasons: a love of plants and nature, the satisfaction that comes from beautifying home and community, the pleasures of creative effort, the desire to collect rare or unusual species, and the healthful benefits of exercise and outdoor air. For some people, like my wife and me, there is pleasure in just watching plants grow.

But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference. In this case, the difference will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.

For decades, many horticulture writers have been pleading for a fresh appreciation of our American flora, and for almost as long they have been largely (or entirely) ignored. For several reasons, however, the day of the native ornamental is drawing near; the message is finally beginning to be heard. If I were to ask a random group of gardeners to comment on the importance of native plants in their gardens, they would probably recount several arguments that have been made in recent years in favor of natives over alien ornamentals. They might describe the sense of place that is created by using plants that belong or the dangers of releasing yet another species of invasive alien to outcompete and smother native vegetation. They might recognize the costly wastefulness of lawns populated with alien grasses that demand high-nitrogen fertilizers, broad-leaf herbicides, and pollution-belching mowers. Or they might mention the imperative of rescuing endangered native plants from extinction. These are all well-documented reasons for the increasing popularity of growing native plants.

Owners of native nurseries are also finding it easier and easier to enumerate the benefits of their offerings. Native plants are well adapted to their particular ecological niche and so are often far less difficult to grow than species from other altitudes, latitudes, and habitats. After all, these plants evolved here and were growing just fine long before we laid our heavy hands on the landscape.

Most compelling to me, however, is the use of native species to create simplified vestiges of the ecosystems that once made this land such a rich source of life for its indigenous peoples and, later, for European colonists and their descendants. That most of our ecosystems are no longer rich is beyond debate, and today, most of the surviving remnants of the native flora that formed them have been finished off by development or invaded by alien plant species. Too many Oak Parks, Hickory Hills, and Fox Hollows—developments named, as the environmentalist Bill McKibben has noted, for the bit of nature they have just extirpated—have been built across the country. Although relatively small, strategically placed and connected patches of completely restored habitats might foster the survival of some of our wildlife, I will describe later why such habitat islands can only protect a tiny fraction of the species that once thrived in North America. With 300 million human souls already present in the United States and no national recognition of the limits of our land’s ability to support additional millions, we simply have not left enough intact habitat for most of our species to avoid extinction. All species need space in order to dodge the extinction bullet. So far we have not shared space very well with our fellow earthlings. In the following pages, I hope to convince you that, for our own good and certainly for the good of other species, we must do better. Native plants will play a disproportionately large role in our success.

The transition from alien ornamentals to native species will require a profound change in our perception of the landscaping value of native ornamentals. Europeans first fell in love with the exotic beauty of plants that evolved on other continents when the great explorers returned home with beautiful species no one had ever seen before. It quickly became fashionable and a signal of wealth and high status to landscape with alien ornamentals that no one else had access to. As the first foreign ornamentals became more common in the landscape, the motivation to seek new alien species increased. Even today, the drive to obtain unique species or cultivars is a primary factor governing how we select plants for our landscapes.

My epiphany

Although I chose entomology as a profession, I understand the thrill of growing an exotic plant for the first time. When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I took a course in woody landscape plants from the noted horticulturist Robert Baker. He introduced me to the world of ornamental horticulture and the many alien species with landscape value. I left that course with an intense desire to plant as many of the species I had just learned about as possible. The only thing that slowed me down a bit was that I had no place to plant them. Still, I gathered seeds from many of the ornamentals on the University of Maryland campus, germinated them in the greenhouse, and planted the seedlings all over the yards of my parents and relatives. Among other things, my parents got a Japanese hardy orange, and I bestowed the gift of Paulownia trees, of all things, on unsuspecting Uncle George. I now find it ironic that, at the same time Robert Baker was turning me on to alien ornamentals, I was taking courses about plant-insect interactions. These were the courses that explained why most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history. All of the information I needed to realize that covering the land with alien plant species might not be such a good idea had been neatly and simultaneously placed in my lap during those months in graduate school, but it was 20 years before I made the connection: our native insects will not be able to survive on alien plant species.

In 2000, my wife and I moved to 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania. The area had been farmed for centuries before being subdivided and sold to people like us who wanted a quiet rural setting close to work. We got our rural setting—sort of—but it was anything but the slice of nature we were seeking. Like many open spaces in this country, at least 35 percent of the vegetation on our property (yes, I measured it) consisted of aggressive plant species from other continents that were rapidly replacing what native plants we did have. We quickly agreed to make it a family goal to rid the property of alien plants and to replace them with the forest species that had evolved within the eastern deciduous biome over many millions of years. This rather optimistic and, I admit, peculiar use of our spare time has put us in intimate contact with the plants on our property, both alien and native, and with the wildlife that depends upon those plants.

A view of our backyard shortly after we moved to southeastern Pennsylvania. The tangle of oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, and autumn olive—all alien species—is typical of what grows in so-called natural areas in the eastern United States.

Early on in my assault on the aliens in our yard, I noticed a rather striking pattern. The alien plants that were taking over the land—the multiflora roses, the autumn olives, the oriental bittersweets, the Japanese honeysuckles, the Bradford pears, the Norway maples, and the mile-a-minute weeds—all had very little or no leaf damage from insects, while the red maples, black and pin oaks, black cherries, black gums, black walnuts, and black willows had obviously supplied many insects with food. This was alarming because it suggested a consequence of the alien invasion occurring all over North America that neither I—nor anyone else, I discovered, after checking the scientific literature—had considered. If our native insect fauna cannot, or will not, use alien plants for food, then insect populations in areas with many alien plants will be smaller than insect populations in areas with all natives. This may sound like a gardener’s dream: a land without insects! But because so many animals depend partially or entirely on insect protein for food, a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life (Wilson 1987). Even the most incorrigible antienvironmentalist would be hard pressed to make an attractive case for such sterility. Pure anthropocentrists should be alarmed as well, since the terrestrial ecosystems on which we humans all depend for our own continued existence would cease to function without our six-legged friends.

But does the pattern of leaf damage I noticed in my backyard hold true? Does it occur elsewhere? If alien plants do reduce insect populations, by how much do they do so? Do aliens exclude all insect herbivores or just some?

Alien plants like Bradford pear (A) and autumn olive (B) are avoided by native insects, while native plant species like black cherry (C) and red maple (D) are good food sources for native insect species.

The larva of Actias luna, the luna moth, is a beautiful member of the family Saturniidae that serves as an important source of food for birds, bats, and other creatures.

Are all alien plant species equally harmful to insects? And is the predicted effect on higher levels of the food web as serious as I’ve suggested? My colleagues and I have started the large, controlled research projects needed to address these important questions, and the data are starting to accumulate. So far, the results provide exciting support for gardeners who have already switched to natives or who are enthusiastic about doing so. If my concern for the fate of our insect herbivores turns out to be justified, these gardeners can and will change the world by changing what food is available for their local wildlife.

My argument for using native plant species moves beyond debatable values and ethics into the world of scientific fact. We can no longer hope to coexist with other animals if we continue to wage war on their homes and food supplies. This simple tenet provides an imperative, particularly for the bird and butterfly lovers among us, to fight invasive aliens as if it really matters and to reevaluate our centuries-old love affair with alien ornamentals. Beyond providing a challenge to ecologically minded gardeners, I will also explain how gardening with natives can create plantings that will stay beautiful and in balance without the use of pesticides. Gardening with natives is no longer just a peripheral option favored by vegetarians and erstwhile hippies. It is an important part of a paradigm shift in our shaky relationship with the planet that sustains us—one that mainstream gardeners can no longer afford to ignore.


The Vital New Role of the Suburban Garden

I needn’t elaborate on the many things our gardens do for us. Properly designed, gardens tie our homes to the surrounding landscape as well as provide an outlet for artistic expression and a source of natural beauty that can be enjoyed year round. Our gardens can also offer refuge from an increasingly hectic and unpleasant world. But because gardens are, in essence, groups of plants, they also have the potential to perform the same essential biological roles fulfilled by healthy plant communities everywhere.

Plants are Earth’s lifeblood

Plants are not optional on this planet. With few exceptions, neither we, nor anything else, can live without them. We invariably take plants and the benefits they provide for granted. Who takes time to think that the oxygen in each breath we take has been produced exclusively by plants? Who is grateful for the forests when we are blessed with the rains that provide the fresh water we all require, water that is filtered clean by the tangled mass of roots it flows through en route to the nearest stream? Even farther from our consciousness is the primary role of plants in the food chain (more accurately, a wonderfully intricate food web). Nearly every creature on this planet owes its existence to plants, the only organisms capable of capturing the sun’s energy and, through photosynthesis, turning that energy into food for the rest of us. Only in the deepest reaches of the ocean do life forms survive that don’t require this food, deriving their energy through chemosynthesis of sulfur from deep-sea vents (Ruby, Wirsen & Jannasch 1981). Plants, therefore, form the first trophic level: the energy that sustains all life.

Plants are the fundamental source of energy for all terrestrial creatures.

Animal diversity is high in the tropics because plant diversity is high.

Because animals directly or indirectly depend on plants for their food, the diversity of animals in a particular habitat is very closely linked to the diversity of the plants in that habitat (Rosenzweig 1995). When there are many species of plants, there are many species of animals. Because plants are so different from one another in their size, shape, habit, their soil, water, and nutrient requirements, and their leaf chemistry (the most important factor determining taste), greater numbers of plant species mean more opportunities for animals to obtain their energy without interfering with one another. That is, plant diversity creates niches to which animals adapt over evolutionary time. This is why we hear so much about the incredible animal diversity of the tropics. There are so many different types of animals in tropical ecosystems because plant diversity is so high there. For example, a single hectare (2.47 acres) of Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador can support as many as 473 species of trees (Valencia, Balslev & Paz y Mino 1994), whereas there are only 134 species of trees in all of Pennsylvania (Rhoads & Block 2005). So if we want to create ecosystems with a diversity of animal species, we first have to encourage a healthy diversity of plants.

Why insects are essential

The second trophic level comprises all the animals that eat plants: the herbivores, or phytophages. In our neck of the woods, the most familiar and apparent herbivores are white-tailed deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. My wife and I were reminded of the strict herbivory of beavers when one showed up in our neighbors’ pond and made meals of their birch and willow trees. Other common vertebrates, such as chipmunks, squirrels, mice, raccoons, box turtles, and of course humans, include plants in their diets but are not restricted to them. Many of these omnivorous creatures are relatively large, and most fall into the category of what have been termed charismatic mega-fauna. It may be a surprise that when it comes to transferring energy from the first trophic level (plants) to the predators, parasites, and omnivores in other trophic levels, these charismatic vertebrates are relatively unimportant. What, then, do most animals in higher trophic levels rely on to pass on the energy held within the plant? Insects!

I cannot overemphasize how important insect herbivores are to the health of all terrestrial ecosystems. Worldwide, 37 percent of animal species are herbivorous insects (Wiess & Berenbaum 1988). These species are collectively very good at converting plant tissue of all types to insect tissue, and as a consequence they also excel at providing food—in the form of themselves—for other species. In fact, a large percentage of the world’s fauna depends entirely on insects to access the energy stored in plants (Wilson 1987). Birds are a particularly good example of such organisms. If you count all of the terrestrial bird species in North America that rely on insects and other arthropods (typically, the spiders that eat insects) to feed their young, you would find that figure to be about 96 percent (Dickinson 1999)—in other words, nearly all of

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What people think about Bringing Nature Home

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  • (5/5)
    Brilliant and instructive! This book will change how you view the natural world around you in the urban and suburban setting!
  • (5/5)
    Interesting and informative. Offers an easy way for individuals to have a positive impact on the environment.
  • (5/5)
    This is one of those paradigm shifting books. So, do you want the local insects to eat holes in your leaves? Resoundingly, YES! If you want a healthy ecosystem, you have to encourage all of the local life; you can't be particular and selective. And to keep the whole thing churning correctly, you can't displace the traditional foods of even the smallest members of the system. Witness the Monarch butterfly crisis because farmers have been eradicating milkweed from much of the US heartland. Grow those weeds. More importantly, grow all the local plants that the local animals rely on. One of the reasons some imported varieties do so outsize well is that they don't have their native nibblers here. That's not a good ecosystem.This is a must-read for all people concerned with the ecosphere remaining alive.
  • (5/5)
    THE suburbanites guide to improving the environment, including global climate change. How to make the world a better place, one plant at a time. A must read by every gardener, landscaper and home owner.
  • (5/5)
    Excellent explanation of why we need biodiversity: insects are necessary as the protein source for most of our loved birds and wildlife, and most plant-eating insects have evolved/adapted to specific plants, so that lawns and imported plants are a desert to them. Lots of great photos making his point. Since I've read a lot on this topic, all the rehash of what I already knew did get a bit tedious, but was easy enough to skim thru. My one quibble with his concept is he seems to say that changing our suburban landscape will be sufficient. I know there are some birds and animals that are not that willing to get so close to humans--they need deep woods for their habitat. By acknowledging that our national parks and preserves are not enough and that we need suburbs to harbor wildlife also, we cannot conversely say that we can now dismantle our preserves.That's the first part of the book. If everyone switched to native plants and decreased lawn size for their landscaping, it would help a lot to make our lifestyle sustainable. Tallamy even includes ideas for fitting in with the neighborhood --native landscaping does not equal neglect & ragged weeds.The second section describes 22 species that support the most insect life. There is no gardening advice, this is more a planning guide.The third section describes 52 insect species: "What bird food looks like" (which is a nice way of saying "don't be squeamish" and reminding us that--besides their role as pollinators-- we don't really want to wipe out all insect life). Tallamy found some interesting fact to share for most species.Appendices include 1) a list of native plants by region--shade trees, conifers, understory trees & shrubs, vines, ground covers, perennials for dry or wet sites, grasses/sedges/rushes, ferns. 2)list of butterflies/moths and their host plants. 3)references (he is a professor, after all)So get it, read it, use it--get with the program!
  • (5/5)
    This is what a terrific book can do to you. It jumps up into your hands from a bookshelf because it has keywords in its title that attract your attention. In my case, the keywords were “native plants”. Then it forces you to peek inside to look at the pictures. I figured there’d be some good pictures as this was a book about nature. Last, it grabs hold of you so you can’t put it down until you’ve finished reading it. Truthfully, I don’t know when the last nonfiction book did this to me, but I was certainly “wow”ed by this book.This was a library book that I selected because I’d recently learned about invasive plant species and wanted to know more about them. What I got instead was basically an abbreviated course in sustaining wildlife. I loved this book! I learned so much from it. Basically the premise of this book is that, if you want to see the return of wildlife to planet earth, you must begin at home. You’re told why alien plant species are not compatible with insects which in turn nourish birds and other larger forms of wildlife that we are now seeing in diminishing numbers.The author, Douglas W. Tallamy, is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. Oh, how I envy those who are in his class! His explanations of ecology throughout his book were organized, intelligent (loved learning both the common and Latin names of each plant and insect!), and humorous. He makes his point about sustainable forms of life very clearly and passionately. I much admire his enthusiasm.Don’t miss this book. It’s a wonderful read, has delightful pictures, and quite a lot to teach you.