I WASN’T LOOKING to get schooled on native plants and ecosystems when I first discovered Kyle Lybarger’s TikTok channel one recent Sunday morning while mindlessly scrolling through cat videos. I suspect most of Lybarger’s nearly quarter-million followers on the platform found him in a similar way. It’s hard to compete with the sensory assault of viral choreographed dance memes, drag queen makeup tutorials, and Gen Zers explaining anarchism on TikTok, but Lybarger has a specific undeniable charm that stands out.
A big part of Lybarger’s appeal has to do with what might be described as a refreshing wholesomeness. He’s an unassuming outdoorsy guy from Hartselle, Alabama, with a beard, workman’s clothes, and an oddly soothing Southern accent that makes his videos — in which he goes deep on local plant life — as entertaining and oddly relaxing as they are educational. He takes obvious delight in walking through the southeastern United States, sharing facts about his life’s passion and the focus of his channel: using native plants to conserve ecosystems. In a video from last July, Lybarger stares with earnest conviction out across a Tennessee basin overtaken by a largely invasive forest. “You can just imagine how that was once a savanna,” he sighs. “I would love to see landowners managing their properties for what they used to be and what they want to be.”
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Lybarger’s journey to become a wildlife social media influencer began after he graduated from forestry school at Alabama A&M University in 2017. He started working for private landowners, most of whom knew nothing about the value of native plants. “I realized how disconnected people were from the landscape,” he explains. “I’d point out a plant to them and they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve lived here my entire life. And I’ve never noticed that!’ I saw a need for people to talk.” He began posting photos of native plants on Facebook and Instagram, and eventually TikTok, where some of his videos unexpectedly went viral.
As it turns out, there’s a lot to be learned about native plants, and Lybarger is the perfect messenger. How about this: In one video, Lybarger explains the secret life of insects and animals under a patch of native bluestem grass. In another, he extols the virtues of the common milkweed plant, the only plant in the world that sustains monarch butterflies. “I wanted to see the content I was making and nobody else was making it, so I figured it might as well be me.”
I’d point out a plant to them and they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve lived here my entire life. And I’ve never noticed that!’
The grasslands of the southeastern United States were once stunningly beautiful prairies and savannas covering hundreds of thousands of acres. These lands were thriving ecosystems maintained by Native Americans for centuries, but most disappeared after early European settlement. “If we’re going to manage native landscapes, you’ve got to look at how they were historically managed.” Lybarger explains. “Most of our grasslands were destroyed early on because as people settled North America, they were finding those open spots and growing crops and raising livestock on the open areas where they didn’t have to cut down any trees.” Lybarger, who grew up in the Southeast, explains that over 90% of the region’s natural grasslands are now gone. “We haven’t seen good examples of grasslands in a long time,” he says.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, “a plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction.” Native plants thrive naturally in their geographic area of origin. They reduce wasteful watering and harmful pest-control chemicals, and maintain healthy soil, which encourages native insect population growth and a healthy ecosystem for wildlife. Humans are largely uneducated about the value of native plants, which we often eliminate for aesthetic reasons like landscaping, or for urban developments. All one has to do is look at the abundance of non-native plants and seeds at a local plant store to know what we typically want our plants to be — pretty flower beds and lawns. “What’s in our garden centers are mostly things that are from other continents,” Lybarger explains.
I ask Lybarger if his audience outside of the rural Southeast wants to consult with him about their particular geographic location. “All the time,” he answers quickly. He advocates for taking the initiative to find out about the plants and wildlife where you live. “Learn your physiographic region and start learning about what historically was there,” he says. He suggests starting with plant ID apps like the popular iNaturalist, which allows the user to identify a plant by snapping a picture of it with your phone. “I wish I had that when I was starting out because you can just take pictures of anything,” he says. “As long as you’re curious, you can really start to learn your area.”
Despite the destruction of most of the grasslands of the Southeast, Lybarger remains optimistic. His videos often point out patches of land where, despite centuries of urban development and misuse, native plant species still exist. “You realize there were a lot of grasslands around here and those grassland species wouldn’t still be around here if it wasn’t historically grasslands in the past,” he explains. Through the popularity of his videos, Lybarger was motivated to take large-scale action. With his recently formed nonprofit organization, the Native Habitat Project, Lybarger wants to save as much of the southeastern grasslands as possible. Through crowdfunding, the Native Habitat Project recently implemented a sign campaign to protect grasslands throughout the Southeast, conducted prescribed burnings that encourage grassland growth, and is now launching a podcast to promote awareness about the value of native plants worldwide.
A large part of Lybarger’s appeal seems rooted in the fact that his videos are also gently philosophical, reminding us of our relationship with nature and the ways that understanding our landscapes better helps us understand our place in them. Even urbanites with no access to grasslands, or even backyards, can benefit from planting natives in their gardens and windowsills. Such plants are not only great for your local environment, but they can be beautiful too. “A lot of these plants will grow fine in pots and you can put them on balconies or on your porch or patios,” Lybarger explains. “Put milkweed in a pot — that’s going to provide habitat for monarchs, and you can start there,” he says enthusiastically. “See the wildlife show up and start using it.” Lybarger started in his own backyard, where he recently began relandscaping using only native plants from seeds he’s collected. It’s going to take a while, but he seems to enjoy the process as much as the result. “It doesn’t seem like that should be such a crazy idea,” he says. “That’s what our wildlife and insects need.”
Joshua Sanchez Photographer
Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature film "Four" won the Best Performance Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He’s a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, and has contributed to the Guardian, the Creative Independent, and Lambda Literary.
Joe Greer Photographer
Born in Flint, Michigan, raised in Florida, and based in Nashville, Joe Greer has been making photographs ever since he moved to Spokane, Washington, in 2010. It is Greer’s sole purpose to document life as he experiences it.