Nature lovers: when you go hiking in the wilderness, what is it you love about the landscape? Is it the trees? The butterflies? The flowers? The beauty of how interconnected nature is? You can bring all this to your doorstep by planting native plants in your yard.

Native plants are plants that naturally occur in a relative area (which can be your watershed, mountain range, prairie, state, town, or a few-mile-radius around your home). Native plants have spent geologic time evolving, adapting, and thriving in the conditions they inhabit. This allows them to persist in their given soil, climate, sun exposure, pollinators, and seed dispersers.

Over time, native plants use fewer resources and less water than a lawn or a landscaped yard. Regionally native plants are adapted to local soil conditions, and expect the amount of precipitation that region receives. This often means you will not have to regularly (if at all) add fertilizers or amendments to your plants, can avoid using pesticides, and can water less - all of which reduces runoff pollution and resource consumption.

For optimizing these benefits it is important to consider where you would find a native plant in the wild, and what kind of conditions it is thriving in. Is it right by a creek? Is it in the shade? Is it growing in clay? Compare these ques to your garden conditions and decide accordingly which plants would be best for your yard.

Additionally, native animals such as insects, squirrels, reptiles and deer have evolved alongside these plants. This proximity has created interdependence between plants and animals. When you plant native plants at home you invite the butterflies and creatures that rely on them. There may be no better way to observe and be a part of nature than to plant native plants.

The fauna and flora of Montana have evolved with each other for so long that some pollinators depend their whole lives on one plant species, and vice versa. One of the most famous examples of this relationship is the Monarch Butterfly and Milkweed. Monarchs will lay their eggs only on Milkweed.

When baby caterpillars are born they will exclusively eat Milkweed leaves - which are toxic to other critters, but are beneficial to Monarch caterpillars by helping them develop a poisonous defense against predators. As Monarchs drink the nectar from multiple plants they also pollinate the Milkweed by dispersing a sack of pollen, called a pollinia. Pollinia are heavy enough that if they get lodged onto a small insect, they could be fatally anchored. Monarchs are large enough that it does not harm them to carry the pollinia around. If you decide to grow Milkweed, be sure to use your native species. There is a perennial, non-native species that interrupts the Monarch’s life cycle, and could host pathogens that harm butterflies.

Be aware of the plants sold in conventional nurseries. They are often highly hybridized or brought in from other continents. They may contain pests our native ecosystems have no defense against, can become invasive and monopolize over the native wildlands, and are not ideal for supplying local critters with their preferred habitat or food. Encourage your local nursery to offer more native plants, and to not sell invasive species. Common Montana native plants to consider are Creeping Mahonia, Snowberries, Buffaloberries, Rabbitbrush, Sagebrush, Common Yarrow, Bitterroot, Blue Grama, and Showy Milkweed.

The biggest threat to native plants and wildlife is human development. The planet's biodiversity is in constant decline. Natural landscapes are constantly in danger of being graded or bulldozed for housing or businesses. When buildings are installed the native vegetation is often removed from the entire property. This has rippling effects throughout the food chain and into nearby ecosystems.

Reintroducing natives to the landscapes helps combat this challenge, and allows wildlife to persist alongside us. And an added perk: native plants also bring a wonderful natural beauty to the area.

My service site, the Montana Audubon Center in Billings, sits on 54 acres of a former gravel pit. Although the grounds have been vastly altered, we strive to rehabilitate the land using native plants. Junipers, Ponderosa Pines, Red Osier Dogwoods, Milkweeds, Sagebrush, Cottonwoods and more have been planted throughout the property. Last year we saw about 20 Monarch Butterflies in our gardens! We hope to inspire, educate and engage people with the use of native plants by setting examples on our landscape. Guests are welcome to stroll our trails. We also have programs on plants, ecology, and birds.

To learn more about native plants you can explore:

Miranda Hernandez is the Conservation Steward at Montana Audubon Center. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Lots of events and ideas to celebrate earth day, week and month – stay tuned!

April 2. 5:30pm. Electric Vehicle Rally, Adventure Cycling Parking Lot (150 E. Pine). Join Electric Vehicle owners to celebrate the joys and benefits of electric vehicles, driving up and down Higgins and ending at the Adventure Cycling parking lot. Happening every first Friday at 5:30pm.

April 6, 12 – 1pm. The First Step to Fixing Climate Change with scientist and climate communicator extraordinaire Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. Families for a Livable Climate virtual event.

April 17, 12-3pm. Little Free Pantry Workshop with MUD and Home ReSource. This workshop will cover the impact of little free pantries in our community, give time for participants to shop for materials, and then participants will build the pantries together at the MUD site. No prior building experience is needed but come prepared with creativity to design your own little free pantry. $20 for MUD members, $40 for non-members.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule and access the event link HERE. 2020 recordings are available HERE.

Through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through June 19 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

Find more local activities and events at and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.