Stories of Native Plants and Their Homeplaces

By Debra Knapke

Most discussions about native plants start with a definition, but not this one. Instead here are my thoughts of where native plants belong in our gardens.

First and foremost, native plants are organisms that have developed affinities for the soil, climate, moisture, and light quality of their homeplace. Plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi, and bacteria in places we call habitats. This is the basis of the oft recommended meme: right plant, right place.

If you know where a plant originates, you know what it needs. Some plants must have the conditions of their homeplace, while others can adapt to a wider range of environments. Consider the Lakeside daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea).

Lakeside daisy in Alvar region garden at Heritage Garden at Ohio Governor’s Residence

Its homeplace is only one location in the world: growing in full sun in the cracks of exposed limestone bedrock on the Marblehead peninsula in northwest Ohio and on Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie. The only way that it can be grown at the Heritage Garden at the Ohio Governor’s Residence is in the crevices of a transplanted limestone slab and in limestone gravel. If you think you will be able to grow a Lakeside daisy in your clay soil, you will be deeply disappointed.

Contrast the narrow tolerance of Lakeside daisy with the exuberant dance of the celandine or wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). I have not attempted to count the number of seeds that one plant can disperse, but my original plant has multiplied into hundreds. While celandine poppy prefers shady conditions and moist, humus-enriched soil, it has seeded into sunny, drier locations in my garden. The trade-off is that the plants in dry, sunnier areas are smaller and seem to make less seed.

Celandine poppy likes to spread, but its cheery yellow flowers are like drops of sunshine.

So… if you have a newly built home, which of the two above plants has a better chance at success?

But even the celandine poppy will have issues with the typical soil that is left when a home is built. Be prepared to spend some time healing damaged soil with compost and recreating the habitat that was.

All plants have developed amazing mechanisms for being pollinated and then getting their seed dispersed.

Our native toadshade or sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) beckons to native beetles and flies who are attracted to what we would consider an off, rotten smell. The reward for the beetles and flies is pollen. The reward for the trillium is pollination.

 Toadshade with ramps in my garden
 The native plant of Ohio is the beautiful large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). The pink tinge on the petals indicates that these flowers have been pollinated.

The seed dispersal mechanism – for all trillium – also involves a food enticement. Each seed has a fleshy appendage – an elaisome – that is prime food for ants. The seeds are carried to the community, the elaisome is removed and stored, and the seed is discarded outside the anthill. This is important for two reasons: removing the elaisome also removes a dormancy requirement, and the discarded seed is in new territory, which will have less root competition from the mother plant and may contain more nutrients.

Many of our native plants have cousins who live in similar habitats but in different parts of the world. We may struggle with the idea of whether or not we should plant the native or the possibly more spectacular non-native plant.

Our diminutive Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) may seem to pale in contrast with the showy Japanese native bleeding heart (Lamprocampnos spectabilis), but each has its own charm and have more similarities than differences in their life stories. Both are spring ephemerals and disappear when dry, hot summer approaches. Both are pollinated by long-tongued bees and both offer ants tasty elaisomes in exchange for moving the seeds around.

But there is the question: does a native plant offer better food to native bees and other native pollinators? Research is being conducted to answer this question at Mt. Cuba, Cornell University, and other botanical gardens and universities. Can’t wait for the answers . . .

At 6-8″ tall and wide, Dutchman’s breeches is more effective when planted in groups.
Goldheart bleeding heart is a golden beacon in the garden. Its larger size, two to four feet tall and wide, allows it to stand alone in the garden as a specimen plant.

As we end Native Plant month, we all know that a commitment to the environment and nature is a year-round effort, but it has been a good exercise to focus on these wonderful plants for this time.

I leave you with the beautiful native blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna), a plant that I want in my garden, but she is picky about her homeplace. After years of developing an area for shyer native plants, I just might be close.

‘Wishing you good health and love!

So Many Reasons to Plant Trees

By Michael Leach

The mention of Arbor Day brings visions of shovels, holes and little sticks with balls of soil at their bases.

Trees are planted for many reasons. But they do more than provide lumber or counter climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon and the heat island effect. They also offer food and shelter to birds and a host of other animals. Sometimes trees become part of local history, childhood memories, voices in the wind or heirlooms. This is the story of five sugar maples.

Perhaps it was Arbor Day in 1912 when the spindly plants were dug from a woods less than a mile from the front lawn of a small Victorian farm house, which was a mere 22 years old. Four of them were transplanted along the country road, the fifth near the house.

The Titanic sank in 1912. It was two years before the start of the butchery of World War I,  and a decade prior to the publishing of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, Tales of the Jazz Age that helped define the 1920s.

Frivolity and bathtub gin gave way to the Great Depression decade. In 1939 The Wizard of Oz was released to sing and dance its way into the fabric of American life. Then came the horrors of World War II. 

By late1952 the first  hydrogen bomb was tested, prosperity raged in America. Tiny-screen televisions mesmerized millions with their  black-and-white images. The road in front the now dilapidated frame house was no longer rutted dirt, but shiny black asphalt. The maples, meanwhile, had grown and thrived. 

Their tops were well above the story-and-a-half house, when two small children, a girl and boy, moved there in 1952. With their mother’s help, they quickly learned to climb a fat-branched apple tree. After a year or so, they were tall enough to scale the nearby sugar maple. It was the tallest and closest to the house. Their mother was ok with them climbing trees, but not playing near the road, which carried more cars every year.

Fast forward another half century. Space travel was ho-hum, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan underway and the little girl’s children were graduating from college. They had grown up far away and had few chances to climb trees, certainly none like the maples. The traffic on the road was almost constant. Semi trucks increasingly rumbled by, hundreds of motorcycles growled on balmy weekends of spring and autumn. The woods where the trees sprouted became a housing tract and only a few gnarly giants remained. 

It was about this time the maples began receiving regular visits from an arborist, because they are not good street trees. Corrective pruning, cabling to help them weather storms, and regular fertilizing became standard care. Despite the remnant of a hurricane, ice storms, droughts and deluges, the trees continued to grow, but less vigorously. Yet their autumn show of golden leaves rivaled the effects of peacocks when it came to  dropping jaws. 

The trees continued filling their various roles, plus they shaded pedestrians and a swath of pavement. They were a source of free mulch when those glorious leaves fell.

About five years ago the tallest and most beloved maple was diagnosed with a rotten center. It  was a threat to the nearby house and the front porch, where the children’s mother had come out to look up into the dense, green cloud and shout, “Kids, supper’s ready. Come on in.”

All that remains from of a beloved sugar maple.

All those years disappeared in three hours. Only scattered sawdust and a smooth, flat shelf of wood at ground level remained. Last fall, the second of the “hospice” maples, as the arborist described them, was cut down. During its last three or four years, this tree displayed ominous signs: little if any new growth, early coloration and leaf loss in fall, and a shower of dead branches and twigs after every wind storm.

Sugar maple blossoms add beauty to the spring scene.

Because the maples are profligates when it comes to seeds, a few sprouted and quickly grew in the landscape beds. The next generation was well underway when the boy, following in the footsteps of his great uncles, transplanted a spindly maple to mark his college graduation in 1970.  Every autumn it puts on a show and then carpets the ground with brilliant leaves.

No wonder some wise people created Arbor Day to celebrate and plant trees. 

Natives and Beyond

Discover Nativar Plants to Bring Beauty and Eco-Benefits to Your Backyard

By Teresa Woodard

Flopping grasses, no-show flowers and unruly plants. Many home gardeners say “no thanks” to such “wild” native plants for these reasons and others.  But, thanks to the flourishing native plant movement, the market has responded with a new and improved plant palette of “nativars.” It’s an industry buzzword for selected, hybridized, or crossbred varieties of native plants that offer more compact sizes, cleaner foliage, better color, or tidier appearance especially for home landscapes.

‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem and ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflowers at Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio.

Nativars like ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem or ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflower offer many of the eco-benefits of their straight-species cousins but also behave and show better in the home landscape.

A bonus is these nativars are more widely available through garden centers and big box stores, unlike native plants that are often exclusively sold through specialty growers or occasional native plant sales.

Planting more nativars would seem to be a plus for pollinators, but some purists challenge nativars don’t equally benefit insects and birds like straight-species natives. Research shows not all nativars are equally beneficial when it comes to pollinator appeal. For example, a change in leaf color or flower shape may dissuade pollinators. Several trial gardens across the country are taking a closer look.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ (Photo by Mt. Cuba Center)

At Mount Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, the botanical garden’s team trialed 66 varieties of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata which is native to much of eastern United States) and found  the mildew-resistant nativar Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ was a winner with 530 butterfly visits. They also trialed 40 monarda selections and named two nativar winners — Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ and Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline.’ For a complete list, see https://mtcubacenter.org/research/trial-garden/ Other nativar pollinator plant trials include Penn State, Chicago Botanic Gardens and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

The bottom line for me is nativars are making a positive impact for their beauty, ease of care, accessibility and ecological integrity. And, the more variety of natives and nativars we can bring to our backyards, the better. So, when shopping for new plants this spring, give nativars a try. Plant a few (see 10 perennial favorites below), run your own experiments and watch to see if pollinators show up. Even consider sharing your results with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s BudBurst citizen science research project.

  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’)
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, Cheyenne Spirit’ and ‘Ruby Star’)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Baby Joe’)
  • Giant hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’)
  • Aster (Symphyotrichum ‘October Skies’)  
  • Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’)
  • Beebalm (Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa `Fireworks’)
  • False indigo (Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’)
  • Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)

For more ideas, see “All About Our Native Plants” at Proven Winners.

Hope Taft Champions Native Plants

One of Hope Taft’s favorite garden chores is caring for the Heritage Garden’s water garden.

By Michael Leach

Those of us at Heartland Gardening have long admired Hope Taft, Ohio’s visionary former first lady. Debra has worked with her for many years in the Heritage Garden at the Governor’s Residence in Columbus. Teresa met her while they were wading the Olentangy River observing concretions with a mutual friend. Michael interviewed her about the garden at its inception when he was working as garden reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. The venerable house is America’s only governor’s residence with a landscape showcasing the state’s native plants and vignettes of its five major natural areas.

As Hope has been instrumental in bringing Ohio Native Plant Month into reality, we thought it a good time to for a Q&A session. Her replies have been edited for space considerations. 

Why do you garden?

Gardening to me is something that takes your full concentration and attention. When I am working in the yard, all consideration of worries or time go away. I find it very refreshing to come in tired from pulling invasive plants and weeding. Instead of the hour I had planned to spend, three have passed, and the area looks so much better! More important, the worries I had before venturing into the yard are so greatly reduced in size, or a solution to the situation has emerged. In our present home, I view what I do as gardening, but it’s more restoring its natural habitat. Wildlife has been nice enough to let us share their home, so I am trying to create a space where all can live in harmony. I recently heard the term “conservation gardener” and think that is what I am.

How do you find time to garden?

Even a few minutes outside, picking herbs for supper or looking for a gift of nature to bring inside for the table, can refresh me. But it’s hard to limit the time to a quickie, so the dinner doesn’t burn! On hot summer days, I find the best time is early in the morning. When I come home tired, if I can walk in the yard and pull a few weeds before I open the door, I am a much happier person.

The prairie garden at the Heritage Garden of the historic Ohio Governor’s Residence

What inspired the Heritage Garden?

When I was fortunate enough to be the first lady of Ohio (1999-2007), we gave many tours of the historic Governor’s Residence. Guests always wanted to know what was from their part of the state. We could do that with artifacts throughout the home. While traveling the state, I realized Ohio is made up of many different regions that favored different plant communities.

One day it dawned on me, we could highlight Ohio’s special topography and plant diversity in the yard and let people from all parts of the state find a spot they could relate to. And it would provide blooms from early spring to late fall!

(A master plan, featuring the five major regions and some of the plants that grow there, was drawn and planted. The small areas around the back lawn include a water garden representing a tiny cranberry bog, sand dunes from Lake Erie shores, and a boulder from Appalachian, which supports a host of plants.)

To further promote Ohio’s natural heritage, Hope helped develop the Geologic Walk Through Time at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds in Columbus. 

Why continue working in the Heritage Garden?

Gardens, yards, nature and environments are continually changing. It is that change that is exciting to me. We sometimes call the residence and grounds a “living museum” because its occupants, furniture, colors are always changing, just as the plants and landscape do outside. I feel blessed that first ladies who have come after me have allowed me to stay involved, so it can be maintained, nurtured and protected. Wonderful volunteers under the leadership of our native plant habitat curator help us maintain the garden, as well as learn the value of, and how to care for native plants. It has become a test area of what works well and what doesn’t, and why it doesn’t.

Protecting nature

“I now believe that by saving or restoring our natural areas and the life that lives in them, we are saving ourselves,” Hope said. To that end she’s currently promotes Ohio Native Plant Month, protection of the Little Miami River, a state and national scenic river;  the Ohio Scenic River Association; Tandana Foundation, a nonprofit started by the Tafts’ daughter, Anna; and works to win designation of the Hopewell ceremonial mounds found in three major clusters in Ohio as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

A passion for people 

Long before becoming Ohio’s first lady, she  was active  for many years in the campaign to end drug abuse.  People have always seen me as an organizer or networker. So when the mayor of Cincinnati (where the Tafts once lived) asked me to help with the emerging crack cocaine crisis in 1986, I said yes. As a young mother at the time, I could see the havoc alcohol, tobacco and other drug use was having on youth and families, so it was easy to work on preventing the problem. 

While serving as Ohio’s first lady, she helped start Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free in 2000. After her husband’s term of governor ended, she became executive director to this nonprofit of first ladies and traveled the country, helping the U.S. Surgeon General release his report on Underage Alcohol Use. The organization disbanded in 2013. 

At the request of Gov. Ted Strickland and Gov. John Kaisch, she served on the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professional Board. Now I am on the retired, senior list of several organizations still involved with this issue.

Time management tips

I learned from a wise woman many years ago to deal with a piece of paper or email when you first receive it. Now my policy is to read all my emails for the day before I go to bed. It makes for some late nights sometimes, but this helps me sleep. (She also recommends, rest, good diet, enthusiasm for the work, keeping your calendar up to date, and having good friends who have special knowledge in your areas of concern that you can depend on to help.)

What’s next?

“As one interest leads to another, it will be exciting to see how my passions evolve in the coming years,” she said. “What other ways can I work towards leaving the world a better place?”

“But,” she added, “I am realizing that others need to be encouraged to take up the efforts that matter to them, because none of us lives forever! I am realizing the importance of planting seeds and mentoring their growth in the next generations.”

Hope Taft at the Heritage Garden with Debra Knapke and Ed Marriman.

Celebrating Ohio Native Plants

By Michael Leach

Today we are helping launch April as Ohio Native Plant Month, with a post about how this became Ohio law.  In a few days, we’ll share an interview with Hope Taft, former Ohio first lady, who not only helped make this happen, but has long been a champion of Ohio native plants and natural areas.

It takes more than trowels and watering cans to make a gardening statement. For April to become Ohio Native Plant Month, ideas, conversations, meetings, legislative hearings, political action, and the signature of Gov. Mike DeWine were part of the mix.

The purpose is to increase public awareness of Ohio’s native plants, and the many benefits they provide to pollinators, Ohio’s economy, and health of Ohio’s environment.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine with Hope Taft (far left) and Ohio Master Gardeners

One of the behind-the-scenes champions is Hope Taft, wife of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and “mother” of the Heritage Garden at the Governor’s Residence in Columbus. It’s the only one in the country featuring a landscape showcasing the state’s native plants and vignettes of its principal ecosystems.

The idea for native plant month sprouted around three years ago when she learned Texas planned a native plant week. She said,  “This struck me as a great way to broaden the impact of the Heritage Garden and increase the use of native plants in residential settings.”

However, it stayed in her memory bank because “…. my background told me it would be a lot of work to get the legislature to go along and even more to have a group of like-minded organizations to do it without supporting legislation.”

Eventually she met Kathryn Cochran Wiggam, wife of state Rep. Scott Wiggam of the Ohio House of Reresentatives, and daughter of Ken Cochran, retired director of Secrest Arboretum. She is a member of the Garden Club of Akron, part of the Garden Club of America. Another memory deposited.

Eventually, several memories and meetings resulted in action. Nancy Linz, the Zone X horticulture chair of the Garden Club of America, Nathan Johnson, director of Public Lands for the Ohio Environmental Council, and Hope worked out a plan to get the facts and information needed to present it to the legislature. She said, “The stars were aligning!”

We surveyed every garden club, associated group and green industry member we could think offor the best month, she said. April was chosen because a wide variety of groups across Ohio could participate and nurseries could be stocked with native plants “when the public is most interested in their own yards.”

Rep. Scott Wiggam and Sen. Bob Hackett guided the plan through the legislature. Committee hearings were required. After making many trips to Columbus to testify in the House and Senate committees, getting school children, green industry representatives, and garden club association representatives to testify, and encourage many others to write letters, the bill was signed into law July 18, 2019,” she said.

The group isn’t finished. The trio is working to form a nonprofit organization, develop a website,www.ohionativeplantmonth.org, and encourage use of information there. “Nancy is the driving force behind Ohio Native Plant Month and hopes it will get national traction,” she said.

Recently the group received notice the Montgomery County Commissioners, which includes Dayton, issued a proclamation honoring Ohio Native Pant Month. This is important, Hope said. It puts the local government on records supporter of using native plants. 

Another way to promote Ohio plants, she said, is for local beautification groups to add “use of natives” as a criteria in selecting outstanding gardens. 

While the COVID-19 crisis forced cancellation of native plant events in April, the Ohio Native Plant Month website will list new events, provide updates, give information on invasive plants, and show tallies of Ohio tree plantings to reach the United Nations Trillion Tree Campaign, www.trilliontreecampagin.org, to plant a trillion trees by 2050.

They also will provide information on adding Ohio native plant pollinator gardens to home landscapes and using Ohio natives in existing landscape plantings.

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