NASHVILLE — My favorite spring flower blooms along the leafless branches of the lowly serviceberry, a small tree with varieties native to every state except Hawaii. In the old days, the serviceberry’s simple, five-petaled blossoms heralded springtime itself.
Appalachian tradition holds that the tree got its name because it bloomed just as snow melted on winding roads, just as mountain passes cleared. Serviceberry flowers meant that circuit-riding preachers would be along soon to perform the weddings and funeral services winter had long delayed.
As with all beloved wild plants, these harbingers of spring have many common names. What we call a serviceberry here in Tennessee is what people in other regions call by names like shadbush, sarvis, juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum and chuckley pear, just to name a few. By whatever name they are locally called, the flowers were a welcome sight for the generations who came before us. Winter was over at last. Bright new life could begin.
Serviceberries are not much of a welcome sight anymore. So thoroughly have they been displaced from our cultivated landscapes, and for so many generations, that most Americans are unlikely to recognize this very American tree. For us, springtime means flowers that evolved for ecosystems in Europe and Asia, not for American yards.
Those cheerful daffodils you’ve loved since you were a child? They came here from northern Europe. The ubiquitous golden sprays of forsythia? Varieties originated in both eastern Asia and Eastern Europe. The star magnolia, the flowering quince and Yoshino cherry, the Bradford pear and many varieties of honeysuckle all came from Asia.
Well, what of it?, you might be thinking. We’re a nation of immigrants, and that cultural multiplicity is our greatest strength. Why shouldn’t we enjoy the loveliest flowers we can coax into growing, no matter where they originated? If what signals springtime to us is a spray of forsythia instead of the blooming branches of a serviceberry tree, what harm can there possibly be?
Quite a bit of harm, actually. Plants aren’t people. Ambulatory and omnivorous, human beings are a migratory species. That’s not true for the vast majority of plants, which evolved to thrive as part of the unique web of life that makes up an ecosystem.
Native flowers feed native insects, which in turn feed native birds, bears, bats, lizards and frogs. Native plants bear seeds that feed native rodents, which in turn feed native foxes, hawks, owls and snakes. Native trees provide nesting places for native birds and squirrels.
Wild creatures need wild plants to survive, but drive down any lane in any suburban neighborhood — or any landscaped city street — and what you are apt to see is a gorgeous, blooming wasteland where the flowers feed nobody at all.
Worse, such plants often go hand-in-garden-glove with an entire ethos of yard maintenance that relies on poison. Between the herbicides designed to kill weeds (including early-blooming wildflowers) and the insecticides designed to kill anything that crawls (including native pollinators), the typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.
And not just for native plants and animals. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters that some researchers say can have a devastating effect on human health, and may be linked to A.D.H.D., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, infertility, cancers, just for starters.
As if that’s not enough, some of the exotic plants we’ve introduced into our formerly functioning ecosystems actually do more than thrive in our built landscapes. Some of them are so well adapted to their unnatural homes that they crowd out the plants that belong. In the American South, where our climate is so perfectly suited to plants from Asia, there is an easy way to know whether many plants are native or exotic: Drive past a forest or wooded city park in the very earliest days of springtime. Any tree or shrub that is greening up or blooming then almost certainly doesn’t belong. In March, the woods here are filled with blooming — and highly invasive — Bradford pear trees, while the buds on the serviceberries are still tightly furled.
It’s hard to address this problem because so many of these flowering trees and woody shrubs have been planted in American yards for so long that their blooms engender a nostalgia for home. And not just in our yards — the delicate blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees now belong as much to our own National Mall as they do to Japan.
My late mother planted the forsythia that is blooming so cheerfully in my yard right now. She also planted the Kwanzan cherry and the flowering crabapples that are on the verge of budburst. A few years ago, I dug up the bridal wreath spirea she planted for me but only because it wasn’t getting enough sun beneath the Leyland cypress tree she also planted. None are native to Middle Tennessee, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to kill them. Most grew from cuttings that came from my childhood home. At least one of them came from hers.
For now, my compromise is to fill our yard with plants that do the work nature designed them for: to feed our wild neighbors. All over this yard there are now young pawpaws and red mulberries, Eastern red cedars and American hollies, redbuds and native dogwoods and, yes, serviceberry trees. It’s not too late for you to do the same in your yards and your towns. The local county extension service or a native-plant nursery can help you find the trees and shrubs that work best for the soil and light conditions where you live. Even easier: Enter your ZIP code in the native plant databases at Audubon or the National Wildlife Federation.
“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities?” asks Douglas W. Tallamy in “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.” His answer might astound you: “Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”
Think of it: 20 million acres of ecosystem that is healthier for other creatures, healthier for human beings, healthier for the planet. With only the smallest effort and expense, we could restore to springtime its most urgent purpose: to bring new life into the world.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”
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