Natural Communities - Native Plant Knowhow Q&A Blog
Wildflowers Ain't What They Used To Be!
Well, why not?
Before European settlement, all wildflowers were native wildflowers (or at least 99%). When Europeans settled they brought along their indigenous plants with them because you love what you know. Historically they used European wildflowers to develop their cuisine and hone their medicine skills. This makes sense because it takes a lot of trial and error, that at best leads to stomach discomfort and at worst death, to figure out what you can eat for sustenance and what works to cure certain ailments. All of this institutional knowledge is largely out the window when colonizing the new world unless you bring your knowledge with you, which is why many European plants arrived on the scene during this period. They also arrived through the use of ornamental European wildflowers for ascetic purposes, even through today in the nursery industry.
At the same time as European settlement ramped up, we began to farm larger and larger parcels of land, which conversely lead to more and more losses of the New World's wildflowers. The opening up and disturbance of agricultural lands lead to the colonization of native and European weeds. Some of these weeds are now called wildflowers, which may be beautiful, but are not the most desirable in terms of ecology and sustaining the human race into the future. Some other European wildflowers just found that they can tolerate the similar climate across the pond and they are beautiful so the proliferated through human cultivation.
But Nick they are so pretty, can't I have them.... Well, you should be aware that they are not native so they do not support the local ecology and wildlife nearly as well (or not at all and many are destructive) as the native wildflowers do. Many of these non-native wildflowers turn into invasive species because they do not have natural predators to keep them in check. They can sit for decades and all the sudden mother nature turn on a switch and they begin to reproduce like crazy and spread life wildfire. This has also happened with so-called "sterile" cultivars of these plants. Without natural predators keeping them in check, they run rampant in native natural areas displacing native species further upsetting the natural balance sometimes to the point of extinction or local
Well, you should be aware that they are not native so they do not support the local ecology and wildlife nearly as well as the native wildflowers do. Many of these non-native wildflowers turn into problematic invasive species because they do not have natural predators to keep them in check. They can sit for decades and all the sudden mother nature turn on a switch and they begin to reproduce like crazy and spread like wildfire. This has also happened time and time again with so-called "sterile" cultivars of non-native nursery plants. Without natural predators keeping them in check, they run rampant in native natural areas displacing native species further upsetting the natural balance sometimes to the point of extinction or local extirpation of species or ecosystems.
So when you are considering choosing "wildflowers" for your yard to help out the birds and the bees, make sure your purchasing native wildflowers. What does "native" mean? Well, this definition is different for many people. For our purposes, this means a plant that was indigenous at the time of European settlement. We use this presettlement period as the last substantially intact natural ecosystem that we can reference.
Why are native plants or native wildflowers (these terms are exchangeable for this post) so important? They provide ecosystem services for use humans far and above their non-native counterparts. Basically, they work with the local ecology instead of against it. The native wildflowers have coevolved with the local climate and wildlife forging a beneficial symbiotic relationship. For us, some of the basic ecosystem services true native plants provide are clean air and water, pollination of our food, and forming a livable atmosphere that surrounds us. Pretty important eh?
Since we have lost most of our native wildflowers in the midwest through development and agriculture, it is important that we put back the true native species so that we can recoup some of these life-sustaining ecosystem services. This will enable us and our offspring to live fruitful lives into the future.
Natural Communities does not sell cultivars or nativars, which also cause unintended harm. This is another discussion for another day :) We only sell true native species that are indigenous to the midwest. Even finer than that, nearly every single plant we sell is native to the Chicagoland area.
We hope you now understand that it is critically important to plant native species over so-called "wildflowers". Make sure you are buying your native plants from a reputable source.
Plant native, plant many, plant often!!!!!
Chief Ecological Officer
Natural Communities Native Plants
I have recently seen several articles touting trees such as Bradford Pear and European black alder as easy to grow options for your yard. They are correct. What??????
Well they do grow well, really well, too well!!!! These species are non-native and increasingly invasive in Illinois and around the great lakes region. These are not excellent options for your yard! They are not even mediocre options, they are awful as they are on the cusp of being in increasingly crowded invasive species top ten list. Several others that are up there in the top ten woody invasive list in northern Illinois are black locust, black alder, white poplar, autumn olive, European cranberry bush, burning bush, and of course bush honeysuckle and buckthorn. Yes some of these are go to landscaping trees and bushes, but they should absolutely not be.
Why? They readily escape into natural areas quickly establishing and outcompeting native vegetation. Take the innocent Rhamnus cathartica (Buckthorn). It was introduced as an ornamental hedge row specimen in the mid 1800’s. Well, apparently innocent... It sat there for 100 years bumbling along until BOOM, something happened, it founds its legs in the Midwest and its population exponentially exploded in the mid 1900’s to now.
What about “sterile” specimens, their good right? Nope they still do not support ecology and often become invasive, just look at the Bradford pear. This is now in most prairies in north Illinois and is alarmingly, ALARMINGLY, becoming more and more abundant. Nature will find a way to defeat our simple human tricks. Why is this bad? Glad you asked.
Non-native invasive species typically have no natural predators or enemies when not in their homeland environment. This means nothing eats them to keep them in check. If not kept in check they grow uncontrollably in population, quickly becoming unbalanced and destroying pristine natural habitat. Also the space that could be occupied by a native plant that supports the local ecology has been sucked up by a plant that performs a negative value for local ecology. Native plants support local ecology by being food for insects, these insects pollinate food for humans and are food for birds and wildlife, and so on, the classic food chain. When you remove part of the chain you can get a sputtering engine. When you remove enough links in that chain you can get a trophic cascade or a collapse of the food chain. Who is at the top of that food chain, humans, scary right!
Does planting one bush in your yard destroy habitat, well technically no, but if you, your neighbor, and your neighbors neighbors plant these and they multiple the consequences can be dire over time.
What can you do, you say? Plant beautiful native trees and shrubs that are functional as well as excellent landscape features!!
What trees and shrubs are excellent landscaping trees in Illinois? Let’s start with the basics.
Shrubs / Small Trees:
Cercis canadensis (Redbud Tree) is an exquisite small tree, possibly the best for landscaping. It is easy to grow, shade tolerant and magnificently beautify. Its blazing pink flowers are excite in the spring and the heart shaped leaves delight though the summer and fall.
Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda Dogwood) is another unique beauty. This native shrub is called pagoda for its tiered branches and leaves that appear similar to an Asian pagoda structure. The spring flowers look like white clouds drifting above the pagoda rooftops. The beautiful structure of the tree satisfies thought the season.
Rosa setigera (Illinois Rose) is the real rose that’s a knock out!!! I would put it up against any landscaping rose for elegant beauty and resiliency. No need to pamper here, it has thousands of years of toughness built in. This rose will not disappoint with its pink flowers and deep red fall foliage.
Quercus bicolor (Swamp White Oak) is easily the best street tree and landscaping oak in the Midwest. Salt tolerant, fast growing, majestic and supporting local native wildlife it does not get any better than this.
Celtis occidentalis (Hackberry) is another killer street and landscaping tree. It is a resilient tree, tolerant of many soil moistures and clay contents and is a looker to boot.
What can you lose, well except sleep for not planting the correct shrub or tree, and native one?
I had the opportunity to prepare and plant a small native garden with my four-year-old daughter this Labor Day. It was the most fun that I had in a long time and I hope she had fun too. Hopefully not too much child labor on this day of days for the laborers of the US :-) Shed did play quite a bit and found a new pet, a roly poly bug.
We first picked out some plants, I let her pick the flower color, obviously purple was the choice! We could have gone with Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium) or Polemonium reptans (Jacob's Ladder) or multiple other short native landscape plants for part shade, but we went with Phlox divaricata (Wild Blue Phlox). Why? I just like the texture of the leaves, its ability to establish another plant when it touches the ground, and the extended bloom of this forb. Phlox divaricata (Wild Blue Phlox) can perform as an excellent ground cover. Plus, it was appropriate as a replacement for the existing ground cover Vinca minor.
Preparation is probably the single most important step particularly with hard to remove plants like the Vinca. You need to create the best possible planting area, just like a vegetable garden. Bare dirt that is fully weed free is key. You must kill or remove the roots of the whatever you are trying to remove. In this case we first hand pulled as much as we could. We then hand “fluffed” or tilled the soil to loosen the remaining Vinca roots. Then to remove the roots we lightly raked the soil, gathered the roots, dried them on the driveway to kill them, and then composted. If you compost weeds, make sure they dye or you will have another problem on your hands. Hand pulling is one of the greenest most sustainable ways to remove weeds, a little elbow grease will do the trick with most plants. In some cases, you may need to resolve to chemical means of the scale is too large. There are natural and synthetic chemical methods, your choice, but make sure whatever methods you use, follow the label and make sure it is fully effective. If you don’t you will be kicking yourself next season with perennial and perpetual weed problems.
While we were hand pulling my daughter found her pet roly poly bug. She gets so attached to theses little pets, its cute!! It stayed with her all day practically. Good for her rolling up here sleeves and getting a little dirty and enjoying it!!! Really kids need to play in the dirt a bit these days like we used to. Get off of that phone and explore, explore the dirt, your neighborhood, natural areas, or that woods behind your house.
After prepping the site, we determined the number of plants we needed based on the square footage. Here we planted them densely at about 1 plant per square foot. This is not dense for all plants, but is for Phlox divaricata (Wild Blue Phlox) because it roots in well from those tips that touch the ground. We went dense here because we wanted it to fill in fast. This area is a very focal point near our back door so we want it to look pretty fast!!!
After planting we placed the much (your choice) at about 2-3 inches thick to retain water while establishment and keep the weeds at bay while the native plants fill in. It is not my intention to maintain a mulched look here. It is my intention for the Phlox to fill in densely over time so that I will not need to mulch or weed extensively.
Come to find out mulch also works well as a dog bed. I walked out and shortly after planting found my dog laying in his freshly made bed. Well my daughter and I could not have this, so we put in stakes though the planting as a temporary k-9 deterrent mechanism to allow the plants to establish. Hopefully this is not his bed of choice in the future :-)
As we planted the plants and while watering them in I talked to her about how these native plants in our landscape. Letting here know that insects eat them and that is a good thing, butterflies and bees nectar from the flowers, the deep roots air rate the soil allowing rain water to penetrate and filter, the deep roots also store carbon in the soil mitigating climate change. I also explained that we would not need to fertilize them or mow saving on air and water pollution. As the plants grow I will reinforce these teachings pointing out the insects eating and pollinating and all the good things.
Well, we had an excellent day planting. Hopefully my daughter leaned a thing or too, but I think more importantly she taught me something. Be Mindful and present….. If she can have that much fun for a whole day with a roly poly bug, I need to take time out and enjoy the small things like planting a native garden with my daughter.
I have a roof top deck with planters in Chicago. Do you have any native plants that will work in this urban environment?
Laurie, yes I believe I have some plants that may work for you. Admittedly I have never installed natives in a roof top planter, but dry prairie species should do the trick. I have several plants in mind that may just work for you. The plants I am recommending are showier plants that are on the hardy end of the spectrum, need less water than most plants, are shorter stature that should work better in a planter setting and are suited for sun to part sun locations.
Really this is a subject that I want to deeper explore so that we can bring native plants to urban and apartment residents. We are currently working on an urban/container kit that will allow natives to be brought into urban areas beautifully and successfully. This really can have a major impact on urban sustainability because of the vertical stacking effect in these high-rise buildings. If every patio had a small native container garden can you imagine the potential!!!!!! This is really an area that I am quite excited about. Urban native plant reintroduction, both in residential setting, commercial, and public areas and waterways.
Anyways, here are a few suggestions:
Ruellia humilis (Wild Petunia) a very tough and pretty plant, I left it outside in a 3-gallon pot for three years and never watered it, it just kept on living and flowering even though several hard winters. This plant comes highly recommended!!!
Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell) a very pretty plant that when planted close together has an exquisite appearance when flowering, This plant is highly recommended!
Asclepias verticillata (Whorled Milkweed) probably the best native milkweed for a planter because it is short and overwinters well in pots. Get those Monarchs reproducing with this genus being their only host plant or food for the caterpillar.
Coreopsis lanceolata (Sand Coreopsis) This plant is proven in harsh environments and can take it pretty dry if you forget to water. IT yellow flowers are quite showy.
Opuntia humifusa (Eastern Prickly Pear) if you want to get crazy with a native cactus, but warning with the spines, see the description. It’s yellow flowers are also quite showy!
Dalea purpurea or Petalostemum purpureum (Purple Prairie Clover) pretty purple spiked flowers provide a show mid-summer and can take it dry.
Fragaria virginiana (Wild Strawberry) With edible strawberries it is perfect for permaculture and just for snacking.
Liatris cylindracea (Dwarf Blazing Star) The best blazing star for a planter because it is shorter in stature and can take very dry conditions.
Lupinus perennis (Wild Lupine) a pretty plant that is short-medium and can take very dry conditions. Plant this plant as an accent piece in your planter or in a clump for a focal point.
Well, I believe these should get you started in planting your native container garden. They should be very solid choices both aesthetically, hardiness, and lower watering and maintenance.
Native Plant Conosoure:
Hi! I was wondering if milkweed plugs can be planted in the fall, before the first freeze. Thanks!
Nick! Thanks for spending time with me at Green Fair on The Fox about my Thistle issue. Can you refresh my memory about what my treatment options are for this?
Natural Communities ---
Sam, excellent to see you again!!
The weed appears to be Canadian thistle. There are several methods that can be implemented, but one should always consider the approach with the least environmental impacts first. For natural areas I will discuss several ideas from the greenest to the least environmentally friendly.
Prevention is always ground zero, having a good crop of native plants such as Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower), and native grasses like Andropogon scoparius (Little Bluestem) prevents weeds from growing.
First is cultural/ manual treatments:
Hand pulling is the best option in a small scale project, pullout as much root as possible, this is best done when the soil is wet just after a rain. Second is weed whacking to prevent seed production and reducing root energy reserves of the weed. The cutting of the weeds, whicle leaving the native plants will eventually shift the planting to native dominance. These ways will take the longest but are the greenest way possible. If you continue to pull/cut and have the native competition it will eventually disappear. The native competition is the most critical step!!!!!
Second is Chemical Treatment:
Horticultural grade vinegar, or a natural herbicide like Phydura is the greenest option in chemical control. These are natural but not without their issues, but much greener than most chemical treatments. They are non-selective (they will kill anything they touch) so watch out for desirable plants. Least green of all is synthetic herbicides. Triclopyr amine (i.e. Garlon 3a) products are systemic (meaning they kill the roots) and select for only broad-leaf plants (they kill only flowering plants for the most part and not grasses). Garlon 3a is mostly a commercial product so you may want to investigate Weed-B-Gone or similar, which is a mixture of several broad-leaf herbicides. Use these as labeled!!!!!
Again, prevention is always ground zero. Plant thick stands of native weeds at the onset and it will prevent many weed problems. After any of these weed treatments replant with native plants to regain that plant competition. If the weeds cannot get at the water, light, or nutrients they cannot establish.
A note on burning and weed control. When applied correctly controlled burning can be your best bet to control woody invasive species, particularly on a large scale. Controlled burning can have minimal effects over sustained practice on herbaceous weeds. Make sure you always have the proper training, safety gear, and permits to implement!!!!
Well Sam, I hope that helps!!! Happy weeding!!!
Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii (Northern Blazing Star/Savanna Blazing Star) the single best native plant in the Chicago Region for attracting butterflies
Likely the single best native plant in the Chicago Region for attracting butterflies, this plant amazes both with it's beautifully intense purple flowers and it's ability to bring in the butterflies.
Green Fair on the Fox will take place on Saturday, August 13, 2016 from 10am to 4pm at the Batavia Riverwalk, indoor at City Hall, and across the pedestrian bridge to the Farmers’ Market on River Street.
Green Fair on the Fox features an eco-marketplace, local businesses, organizations and individuals who raise awareness on sustainable living, physical fitness and healthy living. Participants will enjoy food, live music, demonstrations and fun activities to watch and take part of.
Click here for more details
With the dramatic decline of the Monarch Butterfly, milkweeds and pollinator favorites are the name of the game in today’s native landscaping. Why? Milkweeds provide the exclusive food to the Monarch's caterpillar. Consider planting a milkweed and season long bloom times to aid in their recovery.
Also because we have lost so many milkweeds in the last 20 years to genetically modified crops being sprayed over and over again with glyphosate. When we lose the host plant we lose the species. Monarchs migrate up to 3,100 miles each season to Mexico to over winter. Is that correct? YES!! It takes Monarchs up to 5 generations to migrate down there were the hand out in fir trees for protection. However, the Monarch’s overwintering grounds are being lost to legal and illegal logging. This on top of the milkweed loss, global warming, loss of habitat, stresses, and the list goes on is really making for a trend to extension.
You Are What You Eat….
Illinois is smack dab in the middle of their migration, which is so important to give them great food for their flight!!! They need milkweeds to gain energy to move from the caterpillar stage to the adult butterfly stage. Then they need quality nectar sources though out the season to give them the energy and other vital nutrients to migrate, reproduce, and then migrate again. Native plants are far better than many other sources. Quality native nectar food sources are plants such as milkweeds, but more so; Asters, coneflowers, Liatris, Monarda, Penstemon, goldenrods, and almost all native flowering plants.
Plant a native garden with a diversity of plants and flowers to help these Monarchs out!!!
Humans have lost so many services that our ecosystems provide, but we have an opportunity at our doorstep:
"Healthy nature gives us opportunities for recreation, discovery, and spiritual renewal. And like all other living things, we are completely dependent on healthy nature for our most fundamental needs—clean air, clean water, food, medicines." Chicago WildernessLet's put it back, back in our hearts, back in our minds, back in our souls; build with thoughtfulness, and in our neighborhoods plant oaks and native garden meadows and take back the system that produces our fundamental human needs.
Nature creates more than needs, it create wealth, beauty, livelihood, and best of all happiness.
Create your neighborhood paradise.
Plant for the Future
Natural Communities Native Plants