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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Spring

 

That’s what the people sending out the flower and bulb catalogs are hoping. They’re starting to pile up in my mailbox and probably yours, too, if you’ve ever ordered anything from one of them. And with the January thaw in full swing as I write this, I’m sure some of us are starting to drool over the pretty pictures of what could be surrounding our homes with “just a little effort.”

Marketing is a powerful tool to make us think our “wants” are actual “needs,” and sometimes it can be downright deceptive. For example one catalog I received had a “new” product (that’s what the banner over the picture said) and the top of the page reads “Unique Treasures.” This particular product only costs $4.99! “Silky seed pods resemble parrots.” Looking at the picture, they have four pods arranged on a glass and it does look like four parakeets (not colorful enough for a parrot, I’d say) sipping water. The add goes on to say “Seeds appear with fluffy hairs, ready to catch the wind. Easy to grow, even in poor soils. Great to attract butterflies, especially Monarchs.” If you’ve ever traveled the Indiana roadsides in the fall and know the least bit about Monarchs, you’d recognize this fabulous offer as a common milkweed!

But there are worse things than planting milkweeds. They do attract butterflies and are necessary for the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. And there are benefits to planting native plants. The Indiana Department of Transportation has a Roadside Heritage Program to plant native species along our highways. The benefits they tout are reducing erosion, minimizing costs associated with mowing, minimizing storm runoff, and helping to control invasive species, besides beautifying the roadways.

Invasive species are plants that tend to choke out all other plants and destroy habitat with their monoculture. Garlic mustard is frequently mentioned, along with Asian bush honeysuckle. Garlic mustard was brought here by pioneers to be a food source and is edible but it takes over and pushes out the other plants. There are some honeysuckle growing behind my house and I have to admit I like them and I especially like the flocks of cedar waxwings that descend on them in the fall to eat the berries, but it’s true that nothing else grows under them. Since they aren’t on my property, I guess I can enjoy them and the birds they bring without feeling too guilty.

The Nature Conservancy has a list of things you shouldn’t plant along with suggestions of things to replace them that are similar but not invasive. Instead of Asian bush honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii, maackii, tatartica and x.bella) try planting spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea, all cultivars) is an ornamental grass that is popular, but escapes into your lawn and elsewhere and is a real mess because a mower won’t cut it; it just shreds it and it crowds out the grass you are trying to grow. I speak from experience. An alternative is Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Those pesky Latin names are a mouthful, aren’t they? But they are so necessary. Just like the “parrot plant” mentioned above, the common name of plants vary, but the Latin name is the same the world over. Lots of common flowers have four or five or more names used and it can be very confusing. By the way, I googled “Parrot plant” and came up with a lot of pictures of a very pretty impatiens from Thailand where the flowers, not the pods, did resemble parrots in flight, nothing remotely like the ad in the catalog I saw.

So as you’re looking at those seed and bulb catalogs, take some time to look at the Midwest Invasive Plant Network’s website, MIPN.org, and check out their recommendations. Another excellent source is INPAWS, the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society, at www.inpaws.org. They have a native plant sale where you can buy wildflowers and they also publish lists of things it’s better not to plant.

Native species have the advantage of being adapted to our soils and climate and therefore are easier to grow. Easy to grow sounds like a good thing when browsing the catalogs, but remember, some plants are too easy to grow and they take over, and that can be a bad thing for our local native plants and animals.