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These native plants are not weeds

by SuperiorInvest

The first time I met Neil Diboll, he set his front garden on fire. By the way.

It was part of a lesson Mr. Diboll, a prairie ecologist and nurseryman, was eager to share about native plant communities. The prairie species that had replaced his grass were adapted to fire, he informed me, because regular forest fires had influenced their evolution.

That was more than 30 years ago. Since then, Mr. Diboll has continued to find spectacular ways to engage and educate gardeners. He knows that's essential when it comes to ideas that aren't familiar to most people.

Mr. Diboll has been in the business of propagating and selling seeds and plants of native species of the Midwest and East for 42 years at his Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. And we find ourselves in the era of the pollinator plant and the pollinator garden. and interest continues to grow. But it was not always like this.

Diboll remembers way back when native plants were called weeds, for example.


“When I started doing this,” he said recently, “the local farmers called us 'the pot farm'” (and they weren't referring to cannabis).

“I think it's safe to say it was prairie when prairie wasn't great,” he added, recalling his first six years owning the daycare and living in a trailer as proof. “Let's say we were a little ahead of the curve. “I literally couldn’t give these things away.”

Remember when no one (beyond a few academics studying prairie restoration at a couple of Midwestern universities) knew what a purple coneflower was.

Although now one of the best-known natives and one of the best-selling, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) had not yet come of age and was considered worthy of a garden. That all changed, Diboll said, around 1989.

“The purple coneflower went from a wildflower to a quote-unquote perennial and was allowed in through the garden gate,” he said. “And he paved the way for the entry of other native flowers and grasses. “It was no longer just hostas, lilies and lilies.”

Small native nurseries like the one he bought in 1982 had been propagating and selling echinacea for a decade, “but the rest of the country didn't like it because it wasn't popularized,” he said. “And then all it takes is a few magazine articles, and everyone goes crazy and gets the new plant.”

But not all plants produce weeks of large purple to pink flowers with prominent orange centers that scream “know me” like echinacea does, earning it a moment in the spotlight and a place in so many gardens.

“Even though you see native plants here and there, everywhere,” he said, “actual familiarity with these plants has not yet fully penetrated the consciousness and knowledge base of American gardeners. “It is increasing rapidly, but they are still not the preferred plants.”

We are more likely to be drawn to the flats of annual petunias at the garden center in spring than to seek out the perennial wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), with its months of purple flowers on foot-high stems. But butterflies and hummingbirds know a good thing when they see it.

Mr. Diboll hopes that “The Gardener's Guide to Prairie Plants,” published last spring and which he wrote with Hilary Cox, a landscaper and horticulturist, will help spread the word about all the options available to gardeners. Beyond detailed portraits of 145 species, the book covers how to design, propagate, and maintain them. (And yes, there is a chapter on controlled burns, in case he's interested in setting fire to his own garden.)

As with echinacea, it is often the color that first catches gardeners' attention. Unless we have a pastel-themed garden, we often overlook white-flowering perennials like wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), which provides up to three months of flowering to delight humans and an impressive diversity of pollinators, Diboll said. .

By favoring brighter tones, we also lose other exceptional possibilities. Consider Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum), she said, “one of my 10 absolute favorites.” In summer, the three- to six-foot-tall building is topped with candelabras made up of wands of tiny white flowers, held atop rows of leaves that surround the stem in spirals.

“It's not flashy; It is elegant; in my opinion, one of the most elegant native prairie plants,” Mr. Diboll said. “He is majestic: just look at his height and the way he carries himself. Is beautiful? Is the foliage fantastic? Does a garden make a statement when three or five of them come together? Oh yeah. But it doesn’t have that big, showy flower.”

To find out if Culver's root or another plant is native to your area, Mr. Diboll recommends exploring the distribution maps, known as BONAP maps, from John T. Kartesz's North American Biota Program. He includes them in the book and also on the daycare's website.

Like Culver's root, master rattlesnake (Eryngium yuccifolium) is distinctively architectural, its greenish-white flowers reaching three to five feet tall and resembling small, prickly golf balls. Thanks to its blue-green basal rosettes of bristly foliage, it could easily be mistaken for a cousin of yucca, Diboll said, but it actually belongs to the Apiaceae (carrot or parsley) family: an umbellifer.

Rattlesnake is popular with a variety of bees and wasps, and is also widely used by parasitic wasps, Diboll said, making it an excellent plant for organic gardeners looking for natural pest control.

He tells the story of a customer who had a terrible problem with tomato worms. The problem disappeared once his small patch of prairie, planted from a seed mix that included rattlesnake, reached flowering age. Apparently, the wasps were attracted to the nectar of the Eryngium and then, as if to thank them, they laid their eggs on the tomato worms, parasitizing the pests.

“Correlation does not imply causation, as we all know from statistics,” Diboll said. “But it's a pretty strong correlation.”

The customer's response was straight to the point: “My meadow is my pesticide.”

A genus of perennial plants with white flowers that has recently managed to attract the attention of gardeners is mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), one of the main pollinating resources. More than five years ago, Diboll said, there was hardly any demand, but that has changed. The reality that we are in a pollinator crisis has begun to sink in.

Another uptick: In the 1980s, Prairie Nursery used to sell kittens (Antennaria neglecta), one of the lowest-growing prairie species, with rosettes of light green leaves that have hairy, silvery undersides and produce spring flowers of less than a foot tall. But demand was so weak that the daycare stopped offering it. Now it's back.

“I think what's happened here now is that people are replacing non-native ground covers with native ground covers,” Mr. Diboll said. He rates pussycats as “best” for sandy or gravelly soils, even between rocks (but not for clay or even good loam soils).

A more adaptable species: Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis or Oligoneuron ohioense), which is found naturally in swamps and wetlands, and also grows well in clay and good garden soil. It is Mr. Diboll's choice among the goldenrods, with some of the largest flowers of all, forming a clump three to four feet high. And it doesn't run rampant through the rhizomes (underground stem tissue from which new roots and shoots can sprout) as some goldenrods do, much to the dismay of gardeners.

“Many people dislike Solidagos,” he said. “But I think this changes a lot of people's minds.”

Due to the well-known relationship with the monarch butterfly, milkweed (Asclepias) is also finding a place in more and more gardens.

Verticillata milkweed (A. verticillata) may not have the orange or pink flowers of some of its cousins, but Diboll recommends giving this white-flowered species a look. It grows in “really lousy soils,” he said, including sandy soils, rocky soils and even clay subsoils, places that most plants resent.

The leaves of the two- to three-foot-tall species are “filamentous, very narrow,” he said, but monarch caterpillars use it as a host plant as avidly as they do other milkweeds with more substantial foliage. “It's amazing. You see them hanging from these little leaves, how do they do it?

He's delighted with the caterpillars' agility and appetite, because that's what it's all about, right? Welcome and feed the organisms that feed the food web.

In traditional horticulture, Diboll said, “generally the goal of the planter has been to provide himself with food, whether physical food or emotional food.” His most important work in recent decades, he said, may have been encouraging people to “view the garden as a shared resource for life.”

That is the message it communicates, over and over again. “I tell people, 'If I don't see holes in the leaves of my plants, I'm a failure as a gardener.' We have to overcome this perfectionist: “It has to be just for us.” The garden is for others, and that is, in my opinion, the true revolution of native gardening.”


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast. A path to the gardenand a book of the same name.

If you have any gardening questions, email them to Margaret Roach at gardenqanda@nytimes.com and she may address them in a future column.

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