Fireworks! Flags! Parades! Barbecues! It’s no wonder the Fourth of July is a favorite holiday for most kids. But along with the fun, we try to make sure our children understand that amid all the hoopla we’re celebrating the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the dedication, foresight, and courage of our Founding Fathers.
Independence Day is also a good time to help our kids take patriotic pride in another benefit our country brings us –its amazing diversity of native plants. Stretching from the evergreen forests of Maine to the rain forests of Hawaii; from the Alaskan tundra to the Florida Everglades, in settings as various as grasslands, forests, deserts, and wetlands, native plants provide the habitat native creatures need to thrive. Bears and birds, bats and beavers, butterflies and bees – all depend on native plants in some way for food, shelter, and a place to rear their young.
Exploring the native plant life in your part of the country makes an interesting and instructive summer family project. Start with a visit to your local library to find books on your region’s native flora or do some online exploration with your kids. Then set out to explore nearby natural areas such as parks and nature centers to see what’s growing. Give each child a small sketch pad and encourage them to make drawings and notes of the interesting things they observe. Help them think about the ways plants help wild creatures – a bee or butterfly visiting a flower is collecting nectar or pollen for food; berries dangling from the branches of shrubs are natural bird feeders; tall grass provides shelter from predators for small mammals like mice and voles; the leafy branches of trees offer nesting spots for birds and squirrels. What would all these creatures do without the wild plants to help them?
Then follow-up with a family planting project to add some native plants to your home landscape. You might begin with a site inventory. Are there native plants growing there already? What kinds of plants are they? What kinds of wildlife do they benefit? Then brainstorm together to come up with ideas for more native plants to add to your garden. Maybe your kids are excited about attracting butterflies to the garden. Or perhaps your initial research made them aware of the problems facing honeybees and native bees and they want to help. You and your kids can plant some native flowers to provide both food for these insects and pretty flowers to delight your eyes. If you have some budding birdwatchers at home try adding native shrubs that produce berries for food and provide shelter and nesting spots for winged visitors.
As an added benefit, native plants that are well-adapted to the conditions of light, soil, and moisture in your garden are also going to need a minimum of care. Once they get established they’ll generally do well without supplemental fertilizer and water and are less likely to have major insect and disease problems.
Why not try a little “patriotic planting” this summer? It will offer you and your kids lots of fun and a chance to help the wild native “citizens” of our wonderful country!