Spring is finally upon us! Well...maybe...it is northeast Ohio after all; it could snow tomorrow for all we know. But regardless of what tricks Mother Nature as up her sleeve, it's native plant sale time! Why is this a big deal you ask? Because native plants play amazing roles in our ecosystem, that's why!
They were here first. Before turf grass, manicured lawns, and foreign decorative plants came the plants native to this region, such as common milkweed, bee balm, joe pye, black-eyed susan, golden rod, and cone flowers. They may look like weeds to some people, but they aren't. Plants such as these play so many different roles to help to create habitats specific to their particular area that help the ecosystem thrive. Most urban areas have been stripped of their natural topsoil and sometimes it is not even replaced and/or the soil has been compacted. This leaves the ground almost as impervious as concrete or asphalt. Even turf grass, with its very short root system, is nearly impervious. Native plants have very deep root systems built to dig deep. This gives them stability and the ability to reach the ground water and nutrients to sustain themselves. In doing this they loosen and aerate the soil, create a more permeable surface for stormwater to soak into and recharge the groundwater system, reduce flooding, and aid in filtering pollutants out of stormwater runoff.
But wait! That's not all! They also provide habitat and food sources for all kinds of critters. These plants are specifically designed to provide for the bugs, birds, and other animals specific to their particular habitat. Some pollinators only feed or lay their eggs on specific plants. A relatively well-known example is the monarch/common milkweed relationship. Monarch butterflies will feed on various plants such as cone flower, swamp milkweed, and joe pye. However, they will only lay their eggs on common milkweed. Why you ask? Because of the specific property that common milkweed offers. The sap of common milkweed is highly toxic (DO NOT rub your eyes if you get sap on you and make sure you thoroughly wash your hands). Monarch babies (larvae/caterpillars) only feed on this sap. It is what gives them, and other insects, their orange/red coloration. This coloration tells predators to say away, this is not a tasty snack and if the coloration does not work the nasty bitter taste will and predators will spit them out. The timing of blooms on native plants is also important for critters dependent on food sources before/after hibernation or migration or for their young. The foliage, both live and dormant, is also used for nesting or hiding. Even poison ivy serves a purpose! Cardinals feed on the berries and use the spindly climbing roots on the vines for nesting material. The problem is that these days there is a continuing loss of habitat and there are a lot of non-native and invasive plant species out there that will grow just about anywhere and out compete the native plants for space and resources and create monocultures (areas with little to no diversity). This has a domino effect on the critters that depend on native plants, water quality, stormwater runoff, etc. The entire ecosystem suffers. A yard full of turf grass and no little spring flowers is also a monoculture believe it or not.
So come get your native plants and shrink your lawns! Lose some of that turf grass and create beautiful native plant gardens, create habitats for specific critters like butterfly/pollinator gardens or gardens to attract birds or other wildlife you want to see in your yard. At the same time you will increase the curb appeal and value of your home. And native plant gardens are zero to low maintenance! They were made for this! They evolved to thrive in our specific soils and weather! The only downside to establishing a native plant garden is that it requires time and patience in the beginning. Newly small, newly planted plants and seeds will need some care such as watering. In addition, native plants take 2 - 3 years to get fully established. They spend the first couple of years establishing their deep root systems and growing a little taller. Once they get established they put a majority of their energy into creating the beautiful blooms and fruit that draw in the critters.
Where do I get native plants you ask? Some nurseries, like Ohio Prairie Nursery, Ernst, and Auburn Pointe Greenhouse sell native plants and seed mixes. It just so happens that this is also the time of year that various parks to put on thier native plant sales. In addition, Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District sells native plant seed packets year round! Check out our website and the Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership (LEAP) website for lists of native plant sales and nurseries near you. The LEAP website also features a downloadable master list of nurseries that sell native plants.
Some upcoming sales in May include:
- Crown Point Ecology Center - May 10 (members only), May 11-12 and May 18-19
- Nature Center at Shaker Lakes - May 12
- Cleveland Metroparks, North Chagrin Nature Center - May 12
- LEAF Heirloom Plant Sale - May 12
- Holden Arboretum - May 19
- Perennial Plant Sale to benefit the Native Plant Restoration for Richfield Heritage Preserve at Crowell Hilaka - May 19
- Cleveland Metroparks, Rocky River Reservation - May 19
For more information on native plants check out this presentation by Ohio Praire Nursery.
As always, remember, large or small everything is connected and everything we do affects something else.
Blog Author: Kelly Parker, Stormwater Specialist