Do insects prefer native plants?

We follow Doug Tallamy’s publications closely because he is the academic scientist most often quoted by native plant advocates to support their belief that insects require native plants and that the absence of the native plants will result in the collapse of entire ecosystems:   “…our wholesale replacement of native plant communities with disparate collections of plants from other parts of the world is pushing our local animals to the brink of extinction—and the ecosystems that sustain human societies to the edge of collapse.” (1)

Main fountains of Longwood Gardens.  Creative Commons - Share Alike
Main fountains of Longwood Gardens. Creative Commons – Share Alike

Tallamy co-authored his most recent publication, The Living Landscape:  Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden, with Rick Darke, curator of plants at Longwood Gardens for 20 years.  Longwood is a formal garden outside of Philadelphia, which seems at odds with the exclusively native gardens for which Tallamy advocates.  And so we were intrigued by this unlikely team.  Darke’s introduction to the book implies a departure from Tallamy’s usual mantra:

“Is this a book only about gardening with native plants?  No.  It’s a book about how native plants can play essential roles in gardens designed for multiple purposes, with a focus on proven functionality.  For better and worse, the native plant movement in North America has evolved in the last decade…One of the most important functionalities is durability:  the capacity to thrive over a long time without dependence on resource-consuming maintenance regimes.  Claims that natives are always better than exotics fail to take into account radically altered environmental conditions in many suburban landscapes…In most cases and most places, the design of broadly functional ecologically sound, resource-conserving residential gardens requires a carefully balanced mix of native and non-native plants.  It’s time to stop worrying about where plants come from and instead focus on how they function in today’s ecology.  After all, it’s the only one we have.”  (2)

Tallamy writes his own introduction to The Living Landscape, which suggests a softening of his hard-line insistence upon gardening exclusively with native plants:

“What is native in any given place today wasn’t native if we look back far enough in time, and it is certain that what will be native in that same place in the future will be different from what is native now.  Functional ecological relationships take a long time to evolve—often thousands of years—but they do evolve.  Humanity’s challenge is to reduce its introduction of rapid environmental changes that are currently causing extinctions to occur faster than the evolution of new species.”  (2)   

Has Tallamy’s viewpoint evolved?

When we reported on Tallamy’s previous publication in 2012, we quoted him as saying that a graduate student under his direction could not find any evidence that native plants were eaten by insects more frequently than non-native plants:

“Erin [Reed] compared the amount of damage sucking and chewing insects made on the ornamental plants at six suburban properties landscaped primarily with species native to the area and six properties landscapes traditionally.  After two years of measurements Erin found that only a tiny percentage of leaves were damaged on either set of properties at the end of the season…Erin’s most important result, however, was that there was no statistical difference in the amount of damage on either landscape type.”  (1)

May we conclude that Tallamy no longer believes that native plants are required by insects?  No, we may not.  In Living Landscape he takes a different approach to this question.  He collaborated in three studies which found more insects in native gardens than in non-native gardens:

  • Significantly more caterpillars of butterflies and moths were found in suburban gardens of predominantly native plants compared to gardens of predominantly non-native plants. This study also quantified the number of birds found in these gardens and concluded that “…the negative relationship between non-native plant abundance and bird community integrity is apparent in managed ecosystems as well, regardless of whether the non-native species are invasive.”  This seemed a leap of faith, given that the inventory of insects was done in a six-week period in August and September and the inventory of birds was done in a six-week period in June and July, rendering a cause-and-effect relationship dubious.
  • Two other studies were conducted in a constructed garden in which native and non-native plants were paired for comparisons. Some of the pairs were in the same genus.  Again, significantly more caterpillars and other plant-eating arthropods were found on native plants, although the differences were much smaller when the plants were in the same genus, which are often—but not always–chemically similar.

Reconciling apparent contradictions

So, how are we to reconcile these studies which find more insects on native plants with other studies which report otherwise?

  • Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we rely on the research of Professor Arthur Shapiro to inform us of which plants are useful to our butterflies. He tells us:  “Most California natives in cultivation are of no more butterfly interest than nonnatives, and most of the best butterfly flowers in our area are exotic.” (3) The difference between Professor Shapiro’s studies and those cited by Professor Tallamy is that Professor Shapiro has been studying butterflies in “natural areas” rather than cultivated gardens.  Most of the plants that he finds butterflies using are considered weeds, such as non-native fennel and star thistle, which we wouldn’t find in suburban gardens.  We speculate that this difference accounts for some of the difference in findings. 
  • Furthermore, the studies reported by Professor Tallamy only seem contradictory. In fact, if we look at them closely we find that one reports no difference in what caterpillars eat, but considerable difference in where they are found.  And this strange difference is consistent with the scientific literature.  A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies of insect-plant interactions published by Annual Review of Entomology reports these findings:  “Herbivore densities are lower on invasive plants than on native plants, but there is no evidence that invasive plants overall suffer from less damage inflicted by native herbivores.” (4)

Go figure!  More herbivores are found on native plants, but they don’t eat more native plants than they do non-native plants.

A parting shot

Professor Tallamy urges suburban gardeners to take insects into account when making their gardening choices and, of course, we agree.  However, he closes his pitch for gardening with natives in The Living Landscape with a story which seems superficially compelling but doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Eumaeus atala butterfly laying eggs on coontie.  Creative Commons - Share Alike
Eumaeus atala butterfly laying eggs on coontie. Creative Commons – Share Alike

There is a beautiful butterfly (Eumaeus atala) in Florida that was historically dependent upon a particular native plant, coontie, which is a species of cycad.  Coontie was popular with early settlers as a food flavoring and was nearly wiped out early in the 20th century, along with the atala butterfly which was dependent upon it as its host plant.  Tallamy claims that the atala made a comeback when coontie became a popular plant for suburban gardens.  This makes a powerful case for how suburban gardeners can participate in efforts to conserve our native butterfly fauna.

Coontie.  Photo by Dan Culbert, University of Florida
Coontie. Photo by Dan Culbert, University of Florida

But is it true?  Wikipedia says it’s not:  “The atala is now common locally in southeast Florida rebounding to some extent as it has begun to use ornamental cycads planted in suburban areas.”    This is an example of how chemically similar plants can be useful to native insects, whether they are native plants or introduced, non-native, ornamental plants.

Sago cycad palm
Sago cycad palm is an example of an ornamental cycad

We apologize for being repetitive, but for the record we will close with the reminder that Million Trees urges everyone to plant whatever they want in their own gardens.  In public open spaces, which belong to everyone, we ask only that land managers quit destroying trees and using pesticides for the sole purpose of attempting to eradicate non-native plants.  The audience for Professor Tallamy’s publications is private gardeners, so we don’t really have a beef with him.  We critique his rationale for his preference for native plants only because it is often cited by those who demand the eradication of non-native plants and trees in our public open spaces.

The Living Landscape is a beautiful book, which we recommend to our readers for its lovely photos of naturalistic landscapes.



  1. Doug Tallamy, “Flipping the Paradigm:  Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in Christopher, Thomas,The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011
  2. Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden, Timber Press, 2014
  3. Arthur Shapiro, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, University of California Press, 2007
  4. Martijn Bezemer, et. al., “Response to Native Insect Communities to Invasive Plants,” Annual Review of Entomology, January 2014.

7 thoughts on “Do insects prefer native plants?”

  1. I think the main difference is not between native vs non-native, but what the plant has been bred for. If it’s a ‘weed’ (i.e., not cultivated and bred as a garden plant), it’s more likely to be useful to wildlife – whether that weed is native or non-native isn’t the point.

    The thing is, most gardeners love butterflies but hate caterpillars. Resistance to ‘pests’ – including caterpillars – would be seen as a positive by most people trying to plant a garden. So it wouldn’t be surprising if cultivated species of plants were more showy and less likely to get eaten.

  2. I remember a friend of mine told me a story of when they built the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and planted a lot of exotic lindens they became heavily ‘infested’ with Polyphemus larvae. He told me there was a large hatch with moths flying all over the area. Here you find the inherent adaptability that is found in all of nature not just in gardens. Maybe I am missing something but why would you need a book on this? Is the idea to reassure people, “all natives are OK.” (And gosh darn it-people like me) feel good book.

    1. Doug Tallamy’s first book, Bringing Nature Home, went far beyond saying “natives are OK.” Its essential message was that if we didn’t plant exclusively natives we would be contributing to the destruction of entire ecosystems. This book is the “bible” of the native plant movement. Unlike most publications by academic scientists it was written for the general public and is therefore comprehensible to native plant advocates who typically have only a superficial knowledge of ecology. They “needed” this book to support their assumptions about the superiority of native plants.

    1. Thank you. Undoubtedly there are many such examples of the usefulness of non-native plants to insects, even “specialized” insects. Unfortunately, there are limited resources for studies to find those relationships and document them.

  3. The vastness of the ecosystem as described seems in the literature seems complex beyond understanding. It seems everything is fighting for survival while man is very is bent on foolishly repeating history through his ignorance, addictions and greed. I am learning that people are too foolish to make environmentally or even economically sound decisions when it comes to horticulture and the ecosystem or even the irrigation system. I hope the class will make me less foolish.

    1. I agree with what I think you are saying. I rephrase to check my understanding. The environment is extremely complex and its complexity often exceeds our understanding. That’s one of many reasons why we often make mistakes when trying to “help” the environment.

      You don’t say so, but I will add my own opinion of how to deal with the ambiguity of many environmental issues: In most cases, I prefer to leave it alone because I trust that nature knows more than we do and nature has no ulterior motives although humans often do when they are motivated by their economic interests.

      What is the class you are referring to?

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