Native Plants Shine in Autumn

September 3, 2017 lawanda Newspaper Columns

There are two times of year when native plants are at their best  early spring when the spring ephemerals cover the forest floor, and late summer/early fall when the prairie plants shine.

Here is a quick review of what native plants are and why we should plant them.  Natives are those that were growing in a particular area prior to European settlement, about the mid-1800s.  They have evolved and adapted to the local climate, soils, insects and diseases for centuries.  Thus, they rarely need extra care in the form of human-provided water, fertilizer, staking, pruning and all the other gardening chores that plants imported from other areas require.

Native plants provide more ecosystem benefits than their foreign counterparts.  This means that they support more wildlife, prevent erosion through deep roots, improve the soil, and provide other intangible benefits of which we are not yet even aware.

Native plants preserve the natural heritage of an area.  They provide human benefits as well!  Natives give us an understanding of our natural world, the rhythm of the seasons and a connection to our past much more so than do plants like tulips, lilacs and carrots.

Probably the most recognizable native plant is purple coneflower, or Echinacea.  Just a few of the other late summer bloomers include bottle gentian, blazing star, cup plant, compass plant, prairie dock, many asters and ironweed.  Along with flowers and groundcovers, there are also native trees:  oaks, hickories and maples; native shrubs: black chokeberry, Pagoda dogwood and American hazelnut; native vines:  Virgin’s bower, American bittersweet and Virginia creeper; native grasses:  big bluestem, side-oats grama and switch grass; native ferns:  maidenhair fern, lady fern and ostrich fern; and native evergreens:  balsam fir, bush juniper and white pine.

The list above is just a tiny representation of all the native plants available.  Any landscape can be made lush with native plants to provide food for wildlife in the form of fruits or seeds, provide shade for yards, nesting materials for birds, beautiful blooms throughout the gardening season and a bonus of winter interest in the form of sturdy seed stalks, interesting bark, or evergreen branches.

We are fortunate in Winnebago County to be home to a national organization dedicated to native plants.  Wild Ones, 2285 Butte des Morts Beach Road, Neenah, is a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. Their website, www.wildones.org, holds a wealth of native plant information.

Another valuable website is www.wildflower.org.  By clicking on Plant Lists in the Native Plants dropdown menu, you can get a list of plants native to Wisconsin and narrow it down by type of plant, life span, light requirements, soil moisture, bloom time, plant height and more.

Two excellent native plant books are Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin by Lynn M. Steiner and Gardening with Prairie Plants by Sally Wasowski.

Native Plants


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