The Importance of Gardens to the Conservation of Nature

By Art  Guppy

Author’s garden

A garden, especially one that has masses of flowers and is a bit chaotic (like mine), can be a very important adjunct to nature, even though its plants are not native to the region.  The hummingbirds that sip nectar from the flowers of my Dichelostemma ida-maia (firecracker flower) and my Chaenomeles japonica (flowering quince) don’t mind in the least that the former comes from California and the latter from Japan.  To them the brilliant red flowers of each are a wonderful part of nature.  Likewise, in late spring the Western Tiger Swallowtails that obtain nectar from my Philadelphus coronarius (mock orange) or my large patch of Lilium pardalinum (leopard lily) have no objection to the shrub being from Europe and the lilies being native to California, while the Woodland Skippers that spend sunny summer afternoons on my Buddleia (butterfly bush) or my large clump of Origanum vulgare (marjoram) have no idea they are using plants from Asia and Europe.  My garden and other similar gardens become part of nature because a large number of birds and insects accept them as such.  In a garden, many butterflies and other insects, and at least a few birds develop a symbiotic relationship with people that is highly beneficial to the three very different forms of life.

Before Europeans and people from other parts of the world made their homes in what is today B.C., much of the land, especially near the coast, was covered by coniferous forest, and such a forest is a sort of natural monoculture.  It is an important part of nature, but it provides habitat for a limited number of species.  A very significant exception to the widespread forest cover on the south coast was the land kept open by the native people for the harvesting of camas bulbs.  It is quite probable that those camas meadows never were forested, but had remained open since the last ice age and had been kept in that condition by the native people burning encroaching forest trees.  Not only were the meadows kept open, but the soil would have been frequently disturbed by the people digging the bulbs.  Into that disturbed soil, winter annuals and biennials such as Arabis glabra (tower mustard) would have seeded from their natural habitat on rocky slopes, and in the deeper, moister soil would have grown larger and stayed green longer than they would have done on the dry slopes.  As wild mustards are the natural food plants for the caterpillars of Sara’s Orangetip, it is likely that on and near the camas meadows those lovely butterflies were very common in early spring nectaring on early wildflowers such as Erythronium oregonum (white fawn lily).  From far back in time, the camas meadows, which in a way were like gardens for the native people, were an important adjunct to nature for butterflies and probably for birds and other wild creatures.

In reality, the meadows that covered much of the land except the high mountains after the ice receded, were rather like gardens even before the native people began to tend them, for they were open and sunny, and no doubt had many flowers as well as an assortment of other plants.  Obviously, today the butterflies and other creatures that over thousands of years evolved to live in those meadows, need a meadow-like or garden-like habitat.  A few, but only a few, evolved for the forests that gradually replaced the meadows except where the native people held them back.  In more recent times, a growing human population has taken over much of the natural meadow-like habitat, as well as the camas meadows, and except for gardens, almost nothing is left of open, flower-filled habitat for the creatures who must have it or die.  Now, it seems that even the gardens are going.

I realize that not all people feel a symbiotic relationship with the wild creatures that are attracted to a garden, but for me, and I am sure for many others, that relationship is an almost vital part of life.  Human beings evolved in nature, and instinctively we feel the need for a bond with nature.  We can find that in a garden that attracts wild things such as butterflies and birds.

Photo of Tofino house in 1926

Art with elder brother Tony in front of the house in Tofino, 1926

I absorbed a love for a garden from my mother.  In the early 1920’s she had arrived from England with her husband and 5 children at the tiny fishing village of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  (A sixth child — me — arrived later.)  With her she brought her memory of her family’s garden in England.  At the edge of Tofino, they moved into a crudely built, uninsulated house placed amid the huge stumps of recently felled cedars and hemlocks.  For the house there was no electricity, no fridge, no phone, no radio, and no plumbing.  There was an outhouse at the end of a long, muddy path, and they carried water up a steep slope from a nearby stream.  In that strange new world, with her family to look after, she almost immediately started to make a garden among the stumps, and she dreamed it would be a little like the garden in England.

My earliest memories of my home at Tofino are of helping my mother burn a stump to make space to enlarge her garden.  Over the years I helped as, one by one, she burned other huge stumps, and gradually her garden each summer became a mass of flowering perennials, very like an English garden.  With her family in mind, my mother planted raspberries, loganberries, currants, and gooseberries, and she kept chickens so we could have eggs.  Thinking ahead, she planted apple seeds, and I remember as the trees began to bear fruit, my brothers and sister and I discussed the merits of the fruit of each tree.  When enough stumps had been burned, my mother had three little plum trees sent to us from Victoria, and in time they produced delicious fruit, though not as reliably as they would have if the weather been more favorable for bees in early spring.  My father kept a cow so we could have milk, and he planted vegetables.  In brief, thanks to my parents, and especially to my mother’s garden, I grew up accustomed to great luxury.

When my family arrived at Tofino, it was already becoming a thriving little village built by people mainly from Scotland, Scandinavian countries, and Japan.  The people cleared patches of forest for their homes, and some like my mother planted gardens.  For butterflies and for some birds, that tiny bit of the world suddenly changed.  Undoubtedly, each spring since far back in time, thousands of Painted Lady butterflies had migrated north from California, and a few of them took the route over the Pacific and along the west coast of Vancouver Island.  For that group of butterflies, the heavily forested coast would have had little to offer, and probably they simply perished.  Gardens at Tofino and elsewhere along the coast would have made a wonderful difference.  I remember my mother’s butterfly bush swarming with Painted Ladies and other butterflies, and I remember collecting caterpillars from bull thistles in a neighbor’s yard and raising Painted Ladies from them.

Other butterflies also used our garden.  An elderly Japanese fisherman who lived quite near to us had a large patch of stinging nettle, from which he very likely obtained fresh greens in spring.  Those nettles were probably the source of the beautiful Red Admirals I greatly enjoyed seeing in our garden each summer, and they probably also provided our garden with Satyr Anglewings and Milbert’s Tortoiseshells.  Our own garden also had butterfly foodplants.  The spiny caterpillars on our red currant bushes probably were of Oreas Anglewings and Zephyr Anglewings, two rather similar species that I could not identify at the time.  An exciting find on the leaves of my mother’s hollyhocks were the caterpillars of West Coast Ladies, a relative of the Painted Lady which likely had accompanied that species on the trip north from California.  My early memories of butterflies at Tofino did not include Mourning Cloaks, but they arrived later, starting with a large number breeding on a group of willows on an island in Tofino Inlet.  That unusual occurrence was evidently the result of human activity on the island providing an opening in the forest where willows could get established, and where a mated female Mourning Cloak which had strayed there from some distance away could lay her eggs on the willows.

At that time, as I mentioned, Tofino was a fishing village.  Winning one’s livelihood from the sea means always being in close contact with both the beauty and harshness of nature.  Fisherfolk, like farmers, are accustomed to thinking and acting realistically.  They don’t shrink from the reality that we evolved to include meat in our diet, and to kill in order to live.  I grew up with such people, and I think like they did.  My mother raised chickens, and her sons killed the roosters and prepared them for the oven.  That was a natural part of life, and my closeness to the realities of nature during my early years has coloured my thinking.

When I look at the butterfly counts published each year in The Victoria Naturalist, I am shocked and saddened.  Where have all the butterflies gone?  Butterflies that I remember being quite numerous in my mother’s garden at Tofino in the 1930s and early 1940s are now few in number or not mentioned for Victoria.  That seems inexplicable, as Tofino has much damp, foggy, windy weather, which is very unsuitable for butterflies, while Victoria, with perhaps the best climate in Canada, should be butterfly paradise.  That difference of climate between Tofino and southern Vancouver Island certainly colours my thinking, for I find it impossible to believe the claim made by some that climate change has caused the decline of butterfly numbers in the benevolent climate of southern Vancouver Island.  Certainly, the coastal climate is changing as a slight rise in ocean temperatures produces more evaporation, more cloud, and more rain along the coast, but butterflies that could adapt to Tofino’s climate in the 1930s would not be seriously effected by a little more dampness today on the drier parts of the island.

The butterfly decline seems to have affected all of southern Vancouver Island.  When I moved to my present home near Duncan, I brought with me rooted cuttings of Buddleia in the hope of starting a butterfly garden here.  They are now growing and flowering nicely, and I have planted many other flowering plants that should attract butterflies, but the only butterflies I can rely on seeing are Woodland Skippers, which are a very common little insect, and Cabbage Whites, which are a sort of butterfly weed introduced from Europe.  Fortunately, in late spring I do see a few of the beautiful Western Tiger Swallowtails, but otherwise, butterflies are uncommon here, and I certainly envy the people of the Interior of B.C., where in open places with many wildflowers, there are still many butterflies flitting about in the sunshine.  There are birds here, so all is not lost, though sadly I see far fewer hummingbirds than I remember at Tofino.

When I drive around suburban streets both here and elsewhere on southern Vancouver Island, I believe I can see the reason for the decline in the butterfly population.  The symbiotic relationship between people and butterflies is dying out because we are not upholding our end of the deal.  Gardens have been disappearing, and pavement and mowed lawns have been replacing flowers.  Even weedy waste places with stinging nettles and bull thistles as food for caterpillars have disappeared.  Everywhere now there is nice tidy mowed grass and nice tidy concrete.  Why the change?  Have people lost their love of flowers?  True, a few houses have a few flowers in a neat row in front of the house, but that is not a garden.  What about vegetable gardens and fruit trees and bushes?  As a child at Tofino I was constantly filling my face with berries, plums, and apples — all from our garden and all completely free of poisonous pesticides.  Is it better for children today to be able to keep their faces filled with candy or, at best, with fruit from a grocery store?  That fruit is kept beautifully free of insects and disease by the liberal application of pesticides.  Of course there are “organic” fruits and vegetables, but I notice in a recent Time magazine article that there are now 195 “biopesticides” registered in the U.S., and they can keep “organic” stuff beautifully free of any nasty markings.  Are those pesticides less poisonous and carcinogenic than other pesticides?  Or could they be worse?  I wonder.

I cling to my preference for fruit and vegetables from my own garden, even though my garden stuff often has nasty markings on it.  So far, I have not found half a coddling moth larva in an apple, perhaps because I have always managed to bite around the larvae.  I am getting to be quite old, and I am still alive.  Would I be, if I had always eaten the nice disease-free, insect-free stuff in the grocery stores?  I wonder.

About Art Guppy

Art spent over 70 years studying and writing about native plants of the Pacific Northwest from BC to California, especially the genus Erythronium and related plants. This site is a compilation of his work for the benefit of naturalists everywhere.
This entry was posted in Butterflies, Conservation and Restoration, Ruminations on Nature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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