The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Walk on the Wild Side – Grow Native

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

The word "wild" has many connotations – sometimes negative (wild child) and sometimes positive (wild life). In gardening "wild" often has a negative implication. The label "wild garden" conjures an image of plants (usually scorned as weeds) running amok with each one battling for dominance and looking at your lawn as prime battleground. Unfortunately for some people wild plants and wild gardens are synonymous with native plants and native gardens. Native plants grow in the wild, but are not automatically "wild" plants.

Native plants offer splendor, variety, and durability. The definition of native can be as specific as your desire. The plants could be native to North America, native to eastern U.S., native to Illinois or native to your specific county and plot of land. For natural areas restoration projects the goal is to be specific to the plot of land to the point of using seeds only from plants in adjacent lands if possible. In gardening native generally encompasses plants native to North America. Many new cultivars are selections of native plants.

The ultimate goal for many gardeners is hardy, drought resistant plants with few insects and diseases. Many native plants, especially prairie plants, are the answer and there is no need to give up beauty in the process.

Little Blue Stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is as attractive as any horticulturally manipulated ornamental grass. The steel blue leaves reach 3-4 feet tall so it fits happily into most any sunny landscape. When the winds of winter whip over the land, Little Blue Stem takes on a coppery cast when we yearn for colors beyond shades of brown.

For the devout Illini fan Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, has brilliant orange flowers. Plant it with the non-native blue salvia for an Illini theme garden. Native and non-native plants play well together. Butterfly Weed is an excellent plant for dry sunny areas. Once established it can take long drought periods.

The 2-3 feet tall Butterfly Weed blooms prolifically in July and August. As with many prairie plants it spends the first few years developing roots so give it time to flourish. As its name implies this is a perfect plant to attract butterflies, especially monarchs. Native plants can be crucial to the life of insects and animals. In case you are wondering, Butterfly Weed does not deserve the "weed" part of its name. Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnate, is a taller native with pink flowers perfect for back of the flower border and for high flying butterflies.

One of my favorite plants is baptisia, Baptisia spp. Native to the prairie its 12-foot long roots reach down in time to document the sunshine and storms of prairies past. Roots once yielded blue dye. Settlers called it indigo. The spires of blue or white flowers hover over the silvery blue leaves to make a fetching focal point in the garden.

Looking for something to grow in the shade? Woodland native plants such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Bloodroot, and Dutchman's Breeches are perfectly happy sharing their toe space with trees.

For more information on landscaping with natives, check out the book, Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest available through University of Illinois publications 1-800-345-6087 The website is a wealth of information on the attributes of native plants in the landscape.

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