We come to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden happily expecting to see wild gardens. But when we return home, do we see our lawns and yards also in tune with nature? Why is it important to have native plant diversity at our homes, in our own yards?
Before European settlement, the most common habitat near the Garden was oak savanna, a boundary (ecotone) between prairie and forested regions of Minnesota and states to our east. The dominant tree and shrub were Bur Oak and Hazelnut. Associated important savanna plants included Northern Pin Oak, Trembling Aspen, Chokecherry, Bluestems, Indian and Porcupine Grasses. Other common species included Lead Plant, Steeple Bush, Silky Prairie Clover, Rough Blazing Star, many asters and goldenrods. Our own “prairie” at the Garden is actually oak savanna.
These days, less than one-tenth of one percent of Minnesota’s oak savanna areas has not been converted to agriculture, homes or industry. Unfortunately, the few remaining preserves are overrun with invasive plants—as we well know from attempting to remove them from the Garden. According to World Wildlife Fund, upper Midwest oak savanna is one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. Of the species formerly common in oak savanna, more than a dozen herbaceous plants and several invertebrates are critically threatened. One of those is the Karner Blue Butterfly that requires Lupine to survive.
Every single oak savanna plant that we place in our own yard can create change. Our home gardens are important for preserving diversity and providing a refuge for each plant and for all the butterflies, birds and soil critters who depend on finding that nectar, seed or root system for food. The good news is that a number of nurseries grow native plants from seed first collected from the remnant oak savannas.
Help is available if you’re interested in adding native diversity to your yard. For inspiration, try Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy, University of Delaware Press. (REVIEW) If the project seems overwhelming, consider working with a landscape designer who has experience with native plants. Many cities provide grants to residents who install rain gardens or native plants.
Blue Thumb is a consortium of nearly 50 cities, watershed districts, nurseries and landscape design/build companies. Check www.bluethumb.org to learn the basics, what your city is doing or to find either nurseries or get help with your landscape. Some local nurseries selling native plants include Landscape Alternatives, Outback, Prairie Moon, Kinnickinnic and Sunrise.
A final note relates to our changing climate. Bees, butterflies and other insects that collect nectar and pollinate flowers are responding to the earlier warming we’ve had in recent springs by arriving earlier. Local plants, however, have not changed when they come into bloom. The flowers, therefore, are not ready when the pollinators are.
In addition, climate change is happening faster than the native plants can move with it, by dispersing their seed. That problem is compounded by the lack of contiguous native preserves for the seed to move north. There are not enough preserved lands onto which the seed can disperse.
This makes people important for moving diversity north. To do this, we can select some of our plants or seed from nurseries based up to 200 miles south of us. One reason for this is that native species have evolved into ecotypes that respond to local climate. For example, a chokecherry tree from central Wisconsin brought to the Twin Cities area blooms about two weeks ahead of the local chokecherry.
Extending bloom times and periods of ripening fruit in your own yard by introducing species from seed collected up to 200 miles south of here is a great way to help some species survive the rapid changes underway and also to bring more birds and butterflies into your yard. A sampling of nurseries farther south of the Twin Cities includes Prairie Nursery, Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries and Prairie Ridge in Wisconsin; Ion Exchange, Inc., in Iowa.
Your own yard can become an important refuge—perhaps not as large as Eloise established 100 years ago, but it can be just as critical for the species you add. You can help them survive loss of habitat, invasive plants and climate change. And you will be thrilled with the diverse life that will appear when you do.
Douglas Owens-Pike founded EnergyScapes, Inc., 20 years ago to help people plan, transform and nurture their landscapes for health and beauty.The photo below is a native plant garden designed and installed by EnergyScapes.
Note: This article was published in the Fringed Gentian™, Spring 2009, Vol. 57, No. 2