Editor’s note: At all of our library locations this August, horticulturist and library staff member Alan Helland presented programs about native plants. This article shares some of the information and resources he highlighted. More information can be found in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s publication on native plants and the library resources listed below.
What is a native plant? These are trees, flowers, grasses and other plants that have developed, occur naturally or existed for many years in an area. In North America, a plant is often deemed native if it was present before European colonization.
Some native plants have adapted to limited environments, harsh climates or exceptional soil conditions. While these adaptations mean that some types of plants can exist only within a very limited range, most native plants can thrive in a variety of locations.
The beauty of and interest in native wildflowers comes partly from their wildness. We are all witness to the wild dwindling away, and using natives as a part of a landscape brings a small bit of wildness home and acts in some tiny measure to slow the wild’s passing away. Additionally, natives require less maintenance than other plants. They are beneficial to wildlife and many species of birds and insects, including butterflies, that depend on them. They create a sense of a local place, and they provide an excellent alternative to lawns.
A Few Words on Lawns
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that turf lawns started gaining popularity in America, although in Europe, the “English” lawn had become a status symbol for the wealthy by the 1600s. After World War II, the pursuit of the perfect lawn became part the suburban lifestyle, helped along by the creation of chemical fertilizers and weed killers. We spend billions per year on lawns and gardens – $29.5 billion in 2012, according to a National Gardening Survey.
A good alternative to a traditional lawn is Buffalo grass. The Missouri Department of Conservation explains that this low-growing Missouri native requires only one-half-inch of water a week; standard turf grasses require one to two inches. Buffalo grass turf takes little or no fertilizer and is insect and disease-resistant. Because it grows to just four to six inches high, you can forget your weekly mowing routine – once a month will do. Buffalo grass thrives in full sun and prefers dry, clay or average soil (not sandy).
Select your natives on the basis of your location and how much sunlight the area gets, its soil structure, soil fertility and pH. Add organic matter because whatever your soil type, well composted organic matter will improve fertility and water retention. And a word of advice: start small. It is really easy to get overly ambitious when you are planning for spring planting!
Favorite Natives for Landscaping
- Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa L.). Growing conditions: full sun, dry, unfertile soil
- Blue bells (Mertensia virginica). Growing conditions: full shade, moist, rich soil
- Blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis). Growing conditions: full shade, moist, rich soil
- Blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis). Growing conditions: full sun, good soil
- Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Growing conditions: shade, moist, rich soil
- Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Growing conditions: Partial shade, moderate soil
You can find some favorites of your own by checking out one of the best Missouri wildflower books around, “Missouri Wildflowers” by Edgar Denison or some of the resources listed in DBRL’s Sustainable Gardening & Food Production subject guide.