The vegetation in an area can give you some important information about rainfall, soil conditions, and prevailing winds. Plants are the basic food foundation on which other life forms depend. Resident and migratory animals, birds and insects cannot survive for long if the vegetation in their range is sick, dead or eliminated by human activities. Changes in vegetation can be a useful indicator of local or regional environmental change. Native plants can give you indicators of where to site gardens and what amendments your soil may need. Native trees are drought and fire “recorders.” A two-hundred-year-old oak stump is a window into past growing conditions. Natives can also help you determine what non-native plants and trees are likely to be successful in your area.
Vegetation and Climate
Climate and location strongly affect vegetation. We live in a mixed hardwood/conifer area. We have various species of oaks, cedars, willows, Douglas fir, digger and sugar pines on the property, as well as cottonwoods, maples, alders and ash. Douglas fir and oak are good for lumber, while cedar makes lumber and good fence posts. Any of these will make firewood, although digger pine forms a lot of creosote and you have to keep your stove pipe or chimney well-cleaned. Digger pine, although not considered good for building, is useful for outbuildings when rough-cut and put up in board and batten style. Shrubs include manzanita, Oregon grape, flannel bush, poison oak (which is good feed for horses and ruminants), buckbrush and others. Many of these provide food for birds, beneficial insects, honey bees, other pollinators and browsing ruminants such as deer or elk. The area supports a wide variety of native and introduced grasses and forbs.
Native vegetation has adapted to climatic and water conditions in your area. The downside is that so have insects and plant diseases. For example, many native evergreens are attacked and killed by borers, particularly if they are drought-stressed. Eucalyptus trees, which are also evergreen, were introduced from Australia around the time of the Gold Rush by Australian miners. They came in the form of seeds, which meant insect pests stayed behind. Eucalyptus borers didn’t show up in California until 1980, probably because humans were shipping live plants all over the world. The other side of that equation is that non-native invasive plants can take over because their usual insect and disease controls are not present. Kudzu was planted heavily during the Dust Bowl years for erosion control. Since the Kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria) and other insect predators did not come with it, kudzu became a serious invasive pest, particularly in Southern states. Star thistle is another plant that causes major problems in the West, for similar reasons.
A walk over the land will tell you a lot about your soil, water availability, winds and climate. For example, redroot pigweed is often an indication of rich soil. However, it can also be an indicator that the balance between iron and manganese is out of whack. Dandelions indicate soil that is low in calcium but high in potassium. Junipers are basically desert trees, while maples and cottonwoods do poorly in hot, dry areas. Crabgrass grows well in soil that is nutrient-depleted and low in calcium. Mustard may mean soil is high in phosphorus. If you see groves of cottonwoods, cypress or willows on your proposed homesite, they indicate lots of water in the soil and/or poor drainage. Oaks can grow long taproots that help them survive drought. Tree shape can be an indicator of the strength of prevailing winds – an important consideration if you plan on a windmill.
Moral of the story? Learn enough about the vegetation in your proposed homestead location to know what it tells you about the soil, water and climate conditions.