As much as I try to remain optimistic about the state of things, there’s no denying the fact that we are facing serious environmental problems. In addition to the climate crisis, we are living through a punctuated and rapid loss of biodiversity that biologists refer to as “the sixth extinction”. They argue that the current rate of species loss is approaching the scale of the five previous mass extinction events, including the most recent one, when an asteroid ended the era of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This time, there is no asteroid, only we humans.
The extinction crisis has been escalating for decades, and the day-to-day news can be rather bleak. Though the problem is closely linked and often exacerbated by climate change, the major culprit is the steady conversion of natural habitats to human-occupied spaces.
It’s tempting to think of the biodiversity crisis as something relegated to far-off rainforests, but it is a global problem felt everywhere, including here in Southern California. As readers of this blog post will no doubt be aware, biodiversity in California is unique. Roughly 40% of the plant species which occur naturally in the state grow nowhere else in the world. The complexity of ecological interactions is staggering, and specialist relationships such as the well-known interdependence of the Monarch butterfly and the milkweed are common. Native plants provide the crucial habitat and primary resources that all other land-based life needs.
But for all of the wonder of California nature, the redwoods and granite faces, there is an equal amount of sprawl dominated by ornamental plantings. The plants that occupy our cities and suburbs are most often chosen in a haphazard way with no thought given to ecology, and this has resulted in too many of our urban landscapes supporting anemic shadows of what were once complex ecological webs of indigenous wildlife.
By choosing plants with ecology as a guiding force, we can make a serious impact on the overall health of California ecosystems. Instead of planting Ficus we can plant native oaks, which support orders of magnitude more invertebrate diversity. Instead of planting Lantana, we can plant native Buckwheats, which have specialist relationships with local butterflies. Instead of Crepe Myrtle we can plant Toyon, whose festive winter berries are food for birds. These are individual choices which collectively can help mitigate the biodiversity crisis.
At Theodore Payne Foundation, we try to make these choices easy and intuitive. The placards in our nursery and online store share basic information about a particular plants value for wildlife. We offer plant guides which focus on gardening for specific types of wildlife. Our Local Source initiative gives gardeners the ability to closely match the plants they cultivate with those that grow naturally in the nearest wildlands. And there are many other sources of information out there to help people participate in restoring ecology, such as the Calscape database, which contains a wealth of information, and the regional planting guides of the Xerces Society which focus on planting for pollinators.
With its massive economy, agricultural footprint, urbanized regions, and nearly 40 million human inhabitants, California must strike a balance between its cultural needs and its exceptional biodiversity. In a state where the vast majority of residents live in urban areas, cultivating a more robust and intricate ecology within cities is essential. It will not only do the nuts and bolts work of restoring habitat, but it will also allow many more Californians to experience the state’s unique ecology right within their own neighborhoods. We have the tools we need, and many people (many of you!) are already making these choices. A cultural shift in how we think about the built landscape is underway, but there is a lot more work to do. The good news is that progress can be made immediately at the individual level, simply with the choice of what to plant. If enough of us make those choices, we can create a new paradigm, where biodiversity thrives within the built environment.