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Matthew David tends to soil in a field in Mexico

The Wisdom of Native Plants

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Explore In the Garden Is a Mirror; in the Mirror Is The Beloved, Matthew David’s guest stories for Fruit-Powered Magazine.

Some photos contributed by Julie Kersey

Julie and I have arrived in our new home to undertake an exciting project. We have been asked to come to an orphanage in South Central Mexico to help develop a system of year-round sustainability and home-grown food production. We will also have the privilege of teaching our knowledge in the orphanage school, where, in addition to the basic aspects of education, the children are taught about nutrition, plants, composting and many other highly important, yet often overlooked, aspects of healthy life and culture.

The children here eat primarily raw fruits and vegetables. In the late afternoon, when school is out, you can see them running around the grounds, digging into whole cucumbers, carrots, guava or any other fresh delicious food. That being said, with more than 50 growing children from toddlers to teens, the requirement of food is pretty high. This situation will require a system of food production that provides high volumes of fruits and vegetables. However, in this unique semi-arid climate, with very limited access to some of the tools and materials that are taken for granted in the United States, this project will be quite a challenge.

A field abuts an orphanage outside Mexico City

This is the first time I’ve experienced this type of climate or soil. For the most part, despite the book knowledge I have been absorbing since I knew we would be coming here, it is a great mystery for me. This kind of situation will require the use of plants that I’ve most likely never used before. So the question becomes, “Where do we begin?” And the answer, as always, is in native plants.

In the great scheme of nature, all living species spend many generations co-evolving with their surrounding eco-systems to become perfectly suited for their role in their environment. They not only develop the defenses and resources needed to survive but develop particular traits that contribute something unique to the life around them. As an ecosystem forms and evolves, all the interwoven qualities and contributions of every organism become essential to the survival and growth of all other organisms within that shared ecosystem.

Where plants are concerned, all the plants in a particular ecosystem share common ground, quite literally. The condition and constituency of the communal soil is determined by the life processes of all the plants that share that space. In this respect, it is easy to see how the effects that one plant has on the soil directly affects every other plant.

Most of the time, when we are planting ornamental or edible plants in our garden, we choose the plant according to our aesthetic or culinary preferences. Our planting choices are rarely based upon the geographical and cultural heritage of the plant species. However, as you will find out, it certainly should be.

A view of a bluff outside a Mexico City-area orphanage

An ecosystem can thrive only when the resident organisms are strong, healthy and mutually compatible with the environmental conditions. When a plant native to a particular environment, it has been conditioned from its inception to fit perfectly into the system in which it was brought up. Native plants have strong relationships with not only other plants but with local insects, bacteria and fungi. Through the long process of evolution, the plants that have become a permanent resident in their ecological community have developed the means to peacefully and beneficially coexist with their neighbors.

When plants are taken out of their native settings, they become disoriented to their surroundings. They do not fully understand the customs or even the “language” of their new environment. When plants and other organisms evolve together they use biological communication to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. They ingeniously establish a means to feed one another while preserving their own life and vitality. They also develop a multidimensional means of communication, and through a language of taste, color, aroma and so forth, they will relate the details of this symbiotic dance to their neighbors. When a new plant enters this system without that vital means of communication, it is vulnerable, and its chances of survival are greatly reduced.

In a properly functioning ecosystem, the insects, bacteria and fungi that feed on plant matter have created an agreement with their source of nourishment that will enable both parties to thrive. For example, when an insect feeds on the tissue of a plant, it would not be in that insect’s best interest if its feeding process interfered with the life processes and reproductive cycle of that plant. If that plant was not able to thrive and replicate, then that insect would lose a vitally important source of nourishment and/or shelter. For this reason, the insect has learned how much of the plant’s tissue can be consumed before affecting the vital processes of the plant. The plant communicates with those insects through its carefully designed and multifaceted language to let them know when enough is enough and, for their own sake, the insects respect the signals.

A black butterfly feeds on a yellow flower

When a foreign plant is introduced to a new environment, it lacks the understanding of the new ecological dynamics. It doesn’t know how to explain its boundaries and needs to the surrounding life and will, in most cases, be consumed by the surrounding environment. We see this all the time in our gardening practices. Why is it that we must habitually disperse pesticides and fungicides on our domestic plants for the sake of their survival when, in nature, these plants thrive on their own among the presence of countless more potential “threats” than in our backyards?

By introducing foreign plants to the ecological domain that we inhabit, we are interfering with the harmonious evolution that has been taking place there long before we came on the scene. When our garden is subjected to pests and dis-ease, we may view the situation as interference from nature, however the more accurate conclusion is that our botanical choices are creating resistance to a force that has long been in place and functioning perfectly. When we learn to adapt ourselves to these ecological conditions and relationships, our lives and gardening chores become much simpler.

When we choose native plants for our gardens and landscapes, then we are bringing strength and solidarity into our backyard environments. As we begin to choose more and more native plants, our soil quality will improve and we will begin to host a balanced system of beneficial organisms to help pollinate and protect our plant life.

A healing garden with flowers and a walkway
Read Matthew’s story, “Keep off the Grass,” on turning your lawn into a healing garden, full of edible and ornamental plants.

It is not necessarily a requirement to include only native plants in our gardens, especially when our aim is to grow our own food all year. However, by always consciously choosing the native option when possible, we can exponentially improve the quality and compatibility of our gardens. Here, in Mexico, where it rains only for less than half the year, water is a big issue in regard to growing plants. It is important to carefully consider the methods and processes of growing to find the utmost efficiency in water use, but it is just as important to find the right plants. With a combination of Hugelkultur, sheet mulch beds, rain catchment systems and a carefully planned selection of the plants that already know how to live and thrive in this dry climate, we can learn to reap abundance from this dry, dusty volcanic soil.

There are several local species of beautiful flowers that have spent centuries adapting to this particular climate. Through those many generations, they have developed intimate relationships with the local populations of insects. The insects that are drawn to these flowers and have developed a longstanding bond with them will be invaluable in regard to pollinating our fruits and vegetables. In addition to these overtly “beneficial” garden pollinators, there are countless other species of insects that populate this and feed on plants. They, too, have developed a taste and affinity to these native plants. Not only do they feed on their tissues but make homes among their foliage and use them as places to deposit their eggs. The more natives we leave in our gardens, the more available spaces these insects have to live and so they are much more likely, based on inherent preference, to choose these native plants over the ones we cultivate for our own uses.

Nopal growing from a tree in Mexico
Nopal growing from a tree in Mexico

Even where edible plants are concerned, there are native options that will always contain that inherent wisdom that will bring them vitality and you, abundance. In this part of Mexico, there are several species of succulent cacti that are natives and so they not only tolerate the dryness but it has become an imperative to their life cycles. These plants, like the local nopal, are delicious vegetables that can grow with very little effort and become a bumper crop in the gardens here at the orphanage.

Native plants are wise beyond any of our botanical or horticultural sciences. They possess a wisdom that, if we learn to listen, can teach us a great deal not just about plants but about all the mysteries of life. When we use native plants, we are going beyond the preservation of our soil and into the preservation of natural heritage. Planting natives is just one more way to simplify our lives and find more sustainability by stepping into the flow of nature.

Watch a Video by Matthew David on His and Julie’s New Project

Matthew David in the Dresher Arcade hallway at Raw Experience 3 in August 2013

Check out Matthew David’s transformation story!

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