From wildlands to agriculture to our backyards, native plants provide many essential services to humanity, such as pollination, clean air and water, and soil conservation. Ecosystems with a wide range of native plant species are better able to provide these benefits and to recover from disturbances such as fire, flood, and drought. From microbes to mammals, we are all tied closely to native plants.
In a state that produces roughly two thirds of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, it is no surprise that we’ve run into some problems with maintaining diversity. Our scientists, however, are applying a simple, and quite beautiful solution: native hedgerows. Hedgerows are a type of native plant buffer within agricultural crops that provide homes for pollinators and beneficial insects that we need for our food supply to thrive. Pollinators fertilize our crops while other beneficial insects, like lady beetles and tiny parasitic wasps, control pests and maintain balance in the ecosystem.
In fall of 2015, we installed a hedgerow at each of three farms in southern Santa Barbara County, all of which grow avocado and citrus. As we maintain these hedgerows, our scientists monitor pollinator populations, including plant-insect interactions. Not only do these test sites provide valuable data about the value of this practice and how to improve it, but also act as testimonials for the benefits to native plants thus spreading the practice from farmer to farmer.
Salting the Earth
The worst plant invaders not only displace many native species and reduce biodiversity, but also fundamentally change their environment to favor themselves. Crystalline iceplant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) has frilly white flowers – reminiscent of its relatives - and crystal-like beads of salt that coat its green and red foliage which glitter in the sunlight. But don’t let this sparkling flora fool you! It creates large swaths of genetically identical individuals, smothering any competing native plants. Its creeping invasion across the landscape changes the salinity of the soil – literally salting the earth – as it creates a garish carpet of non-native plant matter.
On San Nicolas Island this invasive has been a focus for our researchers. We are experimenting with two techniques to both control the iceplant and reduce the soil salinity, then hydroseeding not only native plants, but also biological soil crust organisms such as cyanobacteria and mosses which stabilize the erosive sandy soils of the island. ‘Biocrusts’ form important stabilizing cover in desert systems, but are easily damaged through disturbance and take a long time to form on their own. With the help of scientists from Northern Arizona University, we are using greenhouse propagation and restoration of these crusts to experiment with this innovative ecological restoration technique.
You can help!
California native plants need more than wild and agricultural restoration to support a healthy ecosystem. Your backyard is part of the greater California landscape that can create wildlife corridors through urban and suburban areas!