Native Plants Take Center Stage
By Kara Douglas
Published in the Harpswell Anchor, July 2016
Wild blueberry, gray birch, New England aster – you’ve seen them all, even if they don’t catch your eye upon first glance. In fact, they seem to blend in, are seemingly indistinguishable from the woods and meadows in which they grow. They, along with nearly 1,500 other native plant species, make up the backdrop of our ecosystem and the complex food webs they sustain weave the fabric of diversity and resilience we recognize as Maine.
More and more often, natives such as these are being highlighted in gardens and backyard landscapes. That which was once in the background, steps into the spotlight.
“Native plants are important in a garden because we are living in an ecosystem that is complex, dynamic and sensitive to change,” says Kate Miller, who runs her own Harpswell-based gardening business.
Miller likes to emphasize the inclusion of native species in the gardens she tends. She highlights Viburnum, a woody shrub as the most popular native she sees in her line of work.
“It’s real standout, with a nice show of blossoms in the late spring, very well adapted to this area. They grow wild in the woods all around (here).”
“Its a good idea not to assume that to have a great garden the whole landscape needs to be changed,” Miller asserts. “By including native plants, we are attending to the reality that the plants that belong here should still be here.”
Miller notes that in addition to belonging to the landscape, native plants have a part to play for insect and soil life.
Take, for instance, Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fisulosum), a tall perennial flowering plant that blooms in late summer. According to Kookie McNerney, the Home Horticulture Coordinator at the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension office, Joe Pye weed supports native bird populations, especially all species of sparrow, who feed on its seeds.
“The flowers of Ilex (winter berry) are forage food for honey bees and the berries are food for our year-round bird species,” notes McNerney.
Advocates of native plants assert that including them in yard and garden landscapes helps to sustain populations of native insects, birds and mammals that non-native plants often don’t.
More and more scientists name fragmentation and habitat loss as primary factors in the current decline in native songbird populations.
“Loss of habitat is affecting the foraging habits of the Eastern Bluebird, which prefers to search for insects in open fields and pastures during warmer months,” McNerney explains. “Fields in Maine are being overrun by invasives such as Autumn olive and Rosa rugosa.
In his book, Bringing Nature Home, University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy outlines the vital role native plants play in our own yard and garden landscapes.
Tallamy, who sees gardeners as playing an essential role in preserving species diversity, writes, “My research has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than native ornamentals.”
Because non-native plants also have the ability to thrive here, distinguishing what’s native can be tricky business. Many plants, like lupine (lupinus polyphyllus), often considered a Maine native, have the ability to naturalize to new areas once planted. Though it is native to parts of the western US, lupine was introduced to New England. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service Bulletin #2502 states that native plants are those that either originated here or arrived without human intervention.
McNerney says that many of the native species in Maine are common throughout much of New England, even if their growth habits may vary.
“Blueberries are a good example,” McNerney says. “While they do grow in southern New England, nowhere are they are prolific as they are in Maine.”
Not all non-native plants are invasive, but there are several to keep an eye on.
“It’s primarily those that naturalize especially well that we have to be careful of, plants like burning bush and Norway maple and Japanese barberry, that become prolific. They take up the resources that native species rely on to survive,” McNerney explains.
While attention has focused on native plants in recent years, sourcing and raising them doesn’t come without complications, even if they are well adapted to this environment.
The Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit based in Blue Hill, is one of several entities in Maine that promotes native plant conservation. With a mission to conserve biodiversity, encourage plant adaptation in the face of climate change, safeguard wildlife habitat, and create pollination and migration corridors for insects and birds, The Wild Seed Project educates the public on propagation techniques for native seeds. Through them gardeners can order ethically wild-harvested native plant seeds and learn techniques for growing them.
In Harpswell, the conversation about native plants will be the focal point of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s annual meeting on July 18. Speaker Eric Topper from the Maine Audubon Society will offer a presentation on the subject.
If you’re considering a gardening or landscaping project, Miller suggests this: “Its a good idea to walk in the wild places close to where you live and see natural places that are similar to your property, so you know what plants might do well there. You may see really nice plants that you would love to have near your home, but you just don’t know them yet.”