The Unexpected Gift of Dead Plants

NASHVILLE — The winter storm that swept in just before Christmas, moving from the West Coast to the East, was a slow-motion devastation. For a week, it was all meteorologists could talk about — temperatures dropping tens of degrees in a matter of minutes, motorists stranded, flights canceled, power disrupted across the land.

It was 52 degrees here the day the front was due, but the birds were already making their cold-weather plans. The dominant bluebird down at our end of the neighborhood spent much of it sitting on top of the sunny nest box in our front yard. He wasn’t laying claim to the box for nesting season, which is still months away, but for shelter. On bitter nights, whole families of bluebirds will crowd in to escape a storm.

The next morning, sure enough, it was zero degrees outside, with wind chills registering 20 below. Hardly a bird or squirrel ventured out, not even for the suet I had stocked up on during my own storm preparations.

The electrical grid was in danger of going down amid unprecedented demand. The Tennessee Valley Authority ordered local power companies to conduct rolling blackouts, the first in its history. Around here, December highs typically reach the 50s — into the 60s on sunny days — but we didn’t get above freezing again until four days after the front arrived. By then, half the evergreen plants in my yard were dead.

I don’t recommend relying on meteorology by bluebird, but the natural world always has something to tell us about the ecosystems we belong to, and birds are not their only soothsayers. In springtime, the early green-up of invasive plants like bush honeysuckle and Bradford pear signal how thoroughly they are outcompeting our native plants. (Don’t believe me? Do an image search for kudzu in the American South.)

And in winter, as it turns out, the plants that didn’t survive the storm were overwhelmingly nonnatives, at least from what I could tell in my admittedly unscientific survey of Nashville vegetation — another sign that these plants did not evolve for this ecosystem. Popular landscaping evergreens like Japanese cedar, skip laurel (which comes from the Mediterranean region), English boxwood and Japanese euonymus are now some dead shade of brown, while the undeterred Eastern red cedars and Southern white pines and American hollies remain a glorious green.

This is only a general rule, of course. Many of the Chinese hollies and yews, so popular among landscapers and big-box nursery departments, also seem to have escaped the storm unscathed. And it’s too soon to say whether the now-dormant hardwoods — native or otherwise — will leaf out on schedule come springtime or if they also perished in the storm. There’s a chance, too, that some of the evergreens will make a comeback. People here are nonetheless lamenting the loss of what appears to be every evergreen tree and shrub in their yards. Given the extent of this storm, homeowners across the country are surely feeling the same grief.

I understand the attachment to plants that have no place in this place. Before the temperatures dropped so low, we had several of them. Some, like the horribly invasive euonymus and nandinas, were planted by this house’s original owners, so long ago that it would take a backhoe to dislodge them. But others we foolishly introduced ourselves. My mother planted the two stands of Japanese aucuba and quite a few yews when we bought this house almost three decades ago, but I can’t blame Mom for the four skip laurels: I planted those. An inept nurseryman told me they were native to Tennessee, and I believed him. These days I know better than to trust a garden center employee without taking the trouble to confirm.

Now the aucuba and the laurels are dead, and so are the euonymus and nandinas. And while I could never bring myself to cut down anything my mother planted from cuttings from my childhood home, I’m relieved they’re all gone.

There is room now for even more of the native plants that my husband and I have been cultivating for years. We’ll replace the skip laurels with native mountain laurels, the aucuba with American hollies, the euonymus and nandina with inkberry and devilwood and hobblebush. These plants can play the same landscaping roles as their nonnative counterparts, but unlike the nonnatives, they will also produce flowers and berries that feed an amazing array of insects and songbirds, often during winter and early spring, the times of year when other food sources are scarce.

I’m not a gardening expert, but I don’t need to be. Nobody needs to be anymore. Information about which plants are native to which growing zones is readily available from apps like iNaturalist, PlantNet and Picture This, as well as from the searchable databases of national organizations like Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society. Some of the best advice comes from state- and region-specific sources, like the websites or social media feeds of native-plant societies, county extension services and university horticulture departments. I rely on the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council, which offers a handy chart showing which native plants will fill the same planting niche as popular but wrongheaded landscaping choices.

Finding the actual plants I’m looking for — or the seeds to grow them — can take a little planning. I’m lucky that Nashville is an easy drive to GroWild, a native-plant nursery and one of the loveliest places in Middle Tennessee, but people without such a nursery nearby can usually find an online supplier that will ship nationally.

I confess I wasn’t thinking about the plants in my yard as I watched snow and ice pour from the sky the night the Christmas-week storm arrived. I was thinking about the bluebirds. How many of them had crowded into that little nest box? Were its board walls thick enough to keep them safe in such a cruel wind, in such a pitiless cold?

But after the sun finally came out and the wind died down, there were the bluebirds, a host of them, perched along the circumference of the heated birdbath like rosary beads. When spring comes, they will put our nest boxes to another beautiful use, and I will plant more berry-bearing trees and shrubs to sustain them through winter storms yet to come.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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