Going Native

Do turf and petunias portend
a looming biological crisis?

By Janet Marinelli

When Henry Hudson landed on Long Island in 1609, he sang the praises of its white ocean strands carpeted with beach plum and prickly pear. I grew up on Long Island, and as more and more families settled there, I watched the beach plum get trampled. Much of the ancient oak forest that blanketed the island's spine yielded to suburban sprawl.

The Hempstead Plains, once the largest prairie on the East Coast, is virtually gone today. But not until recent years did I realize the horrifying connection that exists between suburban sprawl and suburban planting and ecological devastation.

We are poised on the brink of an age of extinction-of a biological disaster that could be among the worst in evolutionary history. As wilderness shrinks and backyard acreage increases, the home gardener's role in the crisis grows ever greater. Across a continent of breathtaking biological diversity, we have basically planted turf and petunias. It's no wonder that botanists consider 10 percent of our plant species at risk of extinction, and about 25 percent worthy of concern because their populations are declining-plants that provide critical habitat for countless other creatures.

Natural areas today not only are smaller but also are more isolated from one another. When populations of a species are cut off from one another, they are unable to exchange genetic material, and inbreeding occurs. One likely result is that future generations will lack the genetic variety needed to cope with changing conditions, whether global warming or an imported insect pest.

Fifty years of suburban sprawl have reduced the natural landscape to patches and fragments. And so ecological gardeners now strive to preserve entire habitats, not just individual species. It is impossible for any manmade landscape to reproduce the complexity of a pristine ecosystem, but creating wild gardens that reflect some of the richness of the country's disappearing woods, wetlands, meadows, and deserts will still improve the lot of many plants and animals.

The goal of a wild garden is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Ecological gardeners re-create native plant communities in which wildflowers, trees, and shrubs can form the mutually beneficial relationships with other plants and animals that allow them to reproduce and evolve naturally. Each year thousands of seed heads scatter, leading to horticultural creations that add to the exquisite abundance known as biodiversity.

In my Brooklyn backyard, I re-created a tiny pocket of plants found in the primeval oak forest. I planted understory trees such as shadbush beneath a canopy formed by taller trees in neighboring yards. The evanescent white flowers of shadbush appear in early spring, just as its downy new leaves begin to unfold. Cedar waxwings and other birds dine on its dark purple fruits. A shrub such as the native sweet pepperbush produces fragrant summer flowers that attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, and also creates a backdrop for the cinnamon fern, the nodding yellow bellwort, and various other ferns and wildflowers.

My tiny wild garden reflects a national trend. In the southern Appalachians, gardeners are striving to re-create the densely layered woodlands in which North America's deciduous forest achieves its richest and most varied growth. Towering canopies of tulip tree, maple, buckeye, beech, and oak arch over understory species such as sorrel tree, with its drooping sprays of white summer flowers and its brilliant red-purple foliage in fall, and redbud, with its heart-shaped leaves and clusters of diminutive rosy-pink flowers in April. Showy shrubs such as Rhododendron canescens, a wild azalea that puts forth masses of fragrant white flowers, provide a procession of color from spring through autumn. The rare and beautiful oconee bells and other woodland flowers burst into bloom in spring, followed by lush ferns.

Gardeners in the Midwest are re-creating native tallgrass prairie. These grassland gardens change dramatically with the seasons. In midsummer, four-foot-tall rattlesnake masters and purple coneflowers form a dramatic display of white and rose against a canvas of airy, midheight prairie grasses such as sideoats grama. In the fall, the silvery or tawny inflorescence of the grasses sets off purple asters and bright yellow goldenrods.

Gardeners in rapidly urbanizing Arizona are creating desert gardens, framed by such Sonoran Desert natives as the giant saguaro and the squiggly, multistemmed ocotillo. Hedgehog, prickly pear, and barrel cacti add striking desert shapes and textures. Blue palo verde and other native trees provide shade, and native wildflowers such as the bright red chuparosa, or hummingbird bush, add splashes of color.

In the wild garden, human habitat merges with the native landscape, restoring horticulture to its rightful place in the larger ecological community. In the wild garden, we embrace ourselves as a species, not just as separate individuals, families, or factions. Above all else, the wild garden is a place where we embrace not only human desires and visions of meaning and significance, but also the longings and visions of the other life-forms that share our world.

Gardening Organizations

Gardening groups with a focus on native plants are sprouting up all across the United States. Most maintain seed and plant exchanges and offer lectures and field trips.


Green Landscaping with Native Plants The Environmental Protection Agency maintains this informative web site.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Conducts research and presents conferences. 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739; 512-292-4100;

Wild Ones This nonprofit organization has chapters across the United States.; 500-FOR-WILD

West and Pacific Northwest

California Native Plant Society 1722 J Street, Suite 17, Sacramento, CA 95814; 916-447-2677

Washington Native Plant Society POBox 28690, Seattle, WA 98118; 206-323-3336


Arizona Native Plant Society POBox 41206, Tucson, AZ 85717;


Minnesota Native Plant Society 220 Biological Science Center, 1445 Gortner, St. Paul, MN 55108;

Oklahoma Native Plant Society Tulsa Garden Center, 2435 South Peoria, Tulsa, OK; 405-872-8361;


The Native Plant Center Westchester Community College, Hartford Hall, 75 Grasslands Road, Valhalla, NY 10595; 914-785-6143

New England Wild Flower Society Garden in the Woods, 180 Hemenway Road, North Framingham, MA 01701; 508-877-7630


Maryland Native Plant Society POBox 4877, Silver Spring, MD 20914;

Virginia Native Plant Society Blandy Experimental Farm, 400 Blandy Farm Lane, Unit 2, Boyce, VA 22620; Southeast

Florida Native Plant Society
POBox 6116, Spring Hill, FL 34606; 813-856-8202

Georgia Native Plant Society POBox 422085, Atlanta, GA 30342; 770-343-6000

Native-Plant and Seed Sources


Abundant Life Seed Foundation A nonprofit organization, it provides seeds and publishes a newsletter. Box 772, Port Townsend, WA 98368; 360-385-5660

Monrovia This company has teamed up with the National Audubon Society to create the Audubon Habitat Collection of plants. Available in most garden centers, the plants are listed by region and the wildlife they attract. 888-PLANT-IT

West and Pacific Northwest

Forest Floor Recovery POBox 89, Lummi Island, WA, 98262; 360-758-2778

North Coast Native Seed Bank 5851 Myrtle Avenue, Eureka, CA, 95503; 800-200-8969;


Plants of the Southwest Agua Fria Road, Box 11A, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 800-788-7333


Morning Sky Greenery Route 1, Box 137, Hancock, MN 56244; 320-392-5282

Prairie Restorations POBox 327, Princeton, MN 55371; 612-389-4342


Blue Meadow Farm 184 Meadow Road, Montague Center, MA 01351; 413-367-2394

Vermont Wildflower Farm 4750 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, VT 05482; 802-425-3500


Native Gardens 5737 Fisher Lane, Greenback, TN 37742; 423-856-0220

Wild Earth Native Plant Nursery 49 Mead Avenue, Freehold, NJ 07728; 732-308-9777


Ladyslipper Rare Plant Nursery 7418 Hickory Flat Highway 140, Woodstock, GA 30188; 770-345-2998

North Carolina Botanic Garden CB 3375 Totten Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; 919-962-0522

-- Gretel H. Schueller