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Keystone Plants: Maximizing Wildlife Value, Part 1

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Whether creating a new planting space, or adding to an existing one, understanding a few concepts will ensure the best success in attracting wildlife. This is the first in a series of posts where we'll cover several of these basic principles.

By far the most important of these is including as many different types of keystone plants in your plantings as possible. According to Douglas Tallamy, entomologist and author of several books on conservation, "The keystone is that stone in the middle of the Roman arch...if you take it out, the arch collapses. If you take keystone plants out of your local food web, the food web collapses."

Keystone plants are those that are critical to the health of the entire ecosystem, mainly because they provide food to a broad array of insects, which in turn feed the rest of the food chain. Most notable are caterpillars, the primary diet for most species of baby birds in the nest, and also the larva of all of our butterflies and moths.

Tallamy goes on to say that 5% of our native plant species support 75% of our caterpillars, while 14% of our native plants support a whopping 90%!. So 86% of your plants could be natives, but if they don't include keystone plants, you won't have built a sustainable food web.

Keystone plants vary by ecoregion. Below are lists of the top 5 keystone trees, shrubs and perennials in central Ohio, followed by the number of caterpillar species they support in our area (from

Genus Species Caterpillars Quercus (Oaks: black, chinkapin, pin, red, white, chestnut, etc) 477 Prunus (Wild plums and cherries, chokecherry) 381 Salix (Willows: black, shining and peachleaf) 328 Betula (Beech and yellow, sweet, gray and river birches) 317 Populus (Cottonwood and quaking aspen) 287

Genus Species Caterpillars

Quercus (Oaks: dwarf chinkapin & shingle oak) 477

Prunus (Beach and eastern sand cherries, chokecherry) 381

Salix (Dune, sand bar, pussy, prairie, silky & bog) 328

Vaccinium (Blueberry, cranberry, huckleberry/deerberry) 223

Alnus (Alder, Hazel Alder) 188

Genus Species Caterpillars Solidago (Goldenrod: bog, sweet, gray, showy, etc) 122 Symphyotrichum (Asters: New England, blue wood, calico, etc) 112 Helianthus (Sunflowers: sawtooth, showy, hairy, etc) 76 Fragaria (Strawberry - wild and woodland) 71 Eupatorium (Joe pye and bonesets) 32

*To find the top keystone plants for other areas by zip code:

Our website availability and plant profiles are up-to-date - we've been working hard researching and crafting plant profiles to help you make the best choices. We hope to see you soon!

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