The Ocracoke Garden Center, behind the Variety Store, stocks many native shrubs and trees. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Pat Garber

When Hurricane Dorian devastated Ocracoke, flooding houses and cars and destroying yards, the number of trees that uprooted and broke was mind-boggling.

The entire landscape was altered. On top of that, as houses are raised to avert future flooding, more trees have to be removed to make room for the big equipment. As the residents recover from the shock and the island moves toward normalcy, the loss of trees and shrubs becomes more apparent. A mountain of twisted trunks, limbs and other vegetative debris from the storm was stored at the NPS campground and recently was removed.

As recovery continues, many people are starting to think of replanting, wondering what species would be best. They think about what might grow the fastest, best survive the next storms, and look the nicest.

I want to share my belief that the most important factor is to replant with the native species that have always lived and thrived here. These native species are crucial to Ocracoke’s animal life, particularly its insects and birds. My reasoning is below, in a story I wrote for the Observer two years ago.

There has been much interest in recent years in growing native plants in our yards, and I am big believer. Natives require less fertilizer, pesticides and watering and are good for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Only recently I realized the enormous importance of gardening with native plants to promote insects and all life.

When Observer co-publisher Peter Vankevich introduced me to a book–“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy, entomology professor at the University of Delaware–I had my “Wow” moment.

Live Oaks are available for purchase at the Ocracoke Garden Center. Photo: C. Leinbach

The book emphasizes how important insects are to maintain healthy ecosystems, and how important native plants are to insects.

“Unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems,” it asserts, “the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim.”

 According to Tallamy, insects, which make up 70% of all animal species, are disappearing at an alarming rate. A recently released study found that flying insects had declined by 75% in Germany during the last 30 years, and researcher Tanya Latty, teaching fellow at Sydney University, says that “there is no reason to think this isn’t happening everywhere.”

While there are a few species of insects that carry diseases (including some mosquitoes and ticks) the vast majority are herbivores, (plant eaters) or feed on other insects.

There are a number of causes creating these alarming declines–climate change, pesticides, pollution. Of major importance is loss of insect habitat. Huge tracts of land have been plowed under for agricultural use.

Others have been paved and built upon, and others have been converted to lawns. 

Nearly 40 million acres in North America are covered with lawns, virtual dead zones for most native insects and wildlife. Many of these lawns are dotted with non-native trees, shrubs and flowers which may be attractive and wildlife-friendly, but do not support insect larvae.  In order to complete their life cycles, insects require certain substances found in plants they evolved with over thousands of years–that is, native plants.

A CNN report in October 2017 noted that 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination, and 60% of birds rely on insects for food. All wildlife depend on the ecological food web of which insects are a major part, and humans do as well.  

“These are the organisms running the world…Insects are absolutely crucial to our survival,” Latty stressed.

The good news is we can all play a role in preserving and restoring insect populations.  Even the smallest yard can be converted into insect habitat by reducing the lawn and adding and cultivating well-chosen native species. It doesn’t mean we can’t still grow the exotics we love, and it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice beauty.   

While all insects are important in the food web, butterflies and moths (the order Lepidoptera) are good to focus on.

With nearly 12,000 species in the United States and Canada, Lepidoptera is among the most abundant and most studied. Providing habitat for these most loved of insects will create habitat for others. Various species of Lepidoptera require as hosts such diverse plants as oak, dogwood, certain grasses, thistles, violets, and hollyhocks–all North Carolina natives.

Good native trees for Ocracoke include eastern white cedars, live oaks, wax myrtles, yaupon, red and swamp bay or bayberry and loblolly pines.

They can be purchased here on the island at the Ocracoke Garden Center.

The new owner, Joseph Ramunni, is excited about making native plants available for islanders to plant. He encourages folks to place orders by emailing him at josephramunni@gmail.com.

If enough people plant and cultivate with natural habitats in mind, we can restore our wonderful, damaged island to be the island it we love.

In addition to native shrubs and trees, the Ocracoke Garden Center has a variety of flowers and vegetable plants. Photo: C. Leinbach

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