Montclair may soon approve a “one-of-a-kind” ordinance mandating that only native species be planted on town property.
The Jose German-Gomez Native Species Act, named for a town environmentalist, would “will put Montclair at the forefront of communities working hard to re-populate our local environments with native vegetation so that we can support insects, butterflies, birds and other creatures relying on a healthy, native ecosystem.” said Councilor Peter Yacobellis.
In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the importance of native plants, and alarm at the decline of the pollinator populations that depend on them. Native plants and trees provide crucial food and habitat for the birds, bees, butterflies and insects which pollinate crops and provide sustenance for other creatures in the ecological chain.
Only native plants can sustain native pollinators because they have evolved in tandem with them, and the local soil and climate. Non-native plants can’t be pollinated by local insects and butterflies, and do not provide food or habitat for them.
No more butterfly bush
The Bradford pear, an ornamental tree with white flowers which can be seen on Montclair’s streets and those of many North Jersey towns, is a non-native tree species; the Norway maple is another, German-Gomez said.
Popular non-native plants include all annual flowers and plants, and even some perennials like the inaptly named butterfly bush. While butterflies are attracted to the invasive plant, which is native to China, they cannot feed on its nectar nor lay eggs on its leaves. Better for pollinators, he said, are bluebell, columbine and woodland phlox, all native to New Jersey.
German-Gomez recently planted an oak-leaf hydrangea in his yard next to a non-native one. The oak-leaf hydrangea, he said, is typically “full of bees,” while the exotic hydrangea has none.
Loss of native pollinators
According to the draft ordinance, introduced March 15, “native pollinator populations have declined 70% since the 1970s due to widespread use of pesticides in agribusiness, loss of habitat from development, and from our insistence on non-native plants in landscaping.”
In 2017, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law requiring state transportation authorities to plant only native vegetation along state highways; in January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation launching the Jersey Native Plants Program to promote the sale of native plants at retail garden centers and nurseries.
Native plants have other advantages. Because they have evolved to thrive in local conditions, they require minimal watering and are naturally resistant to pests, eliminating the need for pesticides, German-Gomez said. They reduce soil erosion, absorb more groundwater, and sequester more carbon than exotic species.
For example, an oak tree is “like a huge food factory for birds and pollinators,” he said. “It’s very sustainable, requires no maintenance and its environmental value is huge.”
A Japanese maple, by contrast, “has no value for wildlife at all,” he said.
Butterflies are a good example of the co-dependence of native plants and pollinators, he said. Monarchs must lay their eggs on milkweed; fritillary butterfly caterpillars require violets, a ground cover native to New Jersey that many mistake for a weed.
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German-Gomez is co-founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition, the largest association of environmental groups in the New York area, and helped the town become the first in the state certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a community wildlife habitat in 2008. township now has 250 backyard waystations, creating a connected path for pollinators.
He also grows organic food for the local food insecure in community gardens at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Crane Park and First Congregational Church and helps manage community gardens in Paterson, Passaic, Totowa, East Orange, Paramus, Florham Park, Kinnelon and Hillside.
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The ordinance requires the town to replace non-native plants with native plants once they die. It has exemptions for May, when volunteers plant hundreds of tulip bulbs throughout town; hanging flower baskets and flower pots; lawns and athletic fields, and the vegetables, herbs and fruit trees in community gardens.
Though the original wording read that 98% of new trees and plants must be native species, that threshold will likely drop significantly in the final version due to shortages of native species, especially trees. The number can be revisited when growers have caught up to the increased demand for native species, Yacobellis said.
Another recent change to the draft wording accounts for climate change. The original definition for native species—those present in the Northeast since before Colonial times—has been changed to include species from the mid-Atlantic region as far south as parts of South Carolina. This permits the township to work with species that may not be native but are compatible with our new climate, Yacobellis said.
The councilor, who is collaborating on the legislation with Councilors Bob Russo and Lori Price Abrams, said he is hopeful it will be approved by April 22, Earth Day.
German-Gomez said that such a law has been “on my mind” for a long time.
“That is one thing we don’t have, time,” he said.
For guidance in creating a backyard pollinator habitat, visit nearearth.org.
Julia Martin is the 2021 recipient of the New Jersey Society for Professional Journalists’ David Carr award for her coverage of Montclair for NorthJersey.com.
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