A native plant task force
Gardening as though our lives depend on it
Goldenrod (solidago) is a great late-blooming native with many manageable varieties.
More than six months into its conception, the Native Plants Collaborative is bringing together government entities, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and the green industry around the same goal: healing the Western New York ecosystem.
Cofounded by two longtime leaders of the local environmental/conservation movement, landscape architect Linda Schneekloth and native plant expert/educator Ken Parker, the NPC has the following goals:
• Restoration of the unique ecology of natural areas, the value of each place recognized not only for the pollinators and songbirds, but for its uniqueness.
• A new definition of what front and back yard landscapes can be, to include less lawn (with ecologically sound management where lawn is desired), layered plantings, hedgerows with native plants between properties, and pollinator plants and edible landscapes in front of homes.
• Public understanding that the current status quo is unsustainable, including the sprawl of sterile, ecologically valueless housing developments and the degradation of wetlands.
Expert voices for change
Schneekloth and Parker are working with a diverse group of other environmental advocates, who also have well-defined views on what the local ecological landscape is and what it should be. For example, Paul Fuhrmann, a habitat restoration specialist long associated with Ecology and Environment Inc., has provided leadership across many organizations and projects. He cites positive examples of urban habitat restoration using native plants in Tifft Nature Preserve, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Times Beach, Seneca Bluffs, and parts of the Outer Harbor, but adds that there’s a long way to go to restore damage and recoup losses: “This is where municipalities and private landowners can make a difference. There is no land area too small to have positive ecological impacts. Backyards, lawn aprons along roadways, vacant lots can all support native plants.”
Another NPC member, Joshua Konovitz works on restoration projects for Applied Ecological Services. He comments, “One of the most disturbing tendencies I see is the homogenization of the urban environment, manifested today as the landscape aesthetic of manicured lawns and pristine perennials that are typically undisturbed by wildlife of any kind (meaning that they are not involved in the life cycle of any organism, and contribute nothing to the ecological function of the landscape). Native plants are considered undesirable weeds and are removed in favor of ‘exotic’ plants that are to be found in the garden of any house of a similar climate, worldwide.
Naturalist and Spree columnist Gerry Rising regrets that movement toward action on behalf of habitat has been so slow in coming: “Until recently only professional botanists—and in fact not many of them—have understood the important role that native plants play in support of our environment. And it’s not just plants that are native to our region, but also plants that are native to specific local environmental niches. While a native tree hosts a wide range of fauna and flora, an introduced species often stands starkly alone. That may seem at first attractive to farmers and gardeners—‘none of them damned bugs!’—but most of those insects support such necessary activities as pollination. And the insects require the native plants, the plants with which they’ve co-evolved.”
How to get there
Parker was formerly the largest native plants grower in Canada. He stresses the crucial need for plants with local provenance, for many reasons. As he explains, some pollinator or bird depends upon a flower, fruit, or seed at a very specific time. But the native shrub cultivar (often called nativar) or the same shrub species that was grown in Ohio may produce a flower that opens too early or too late to do its job. Or the “improved” flower or fruit is too big or too closed or the wrong color to serve its natural purposes. Provenance counts.
Restoration projects in the region, such as the Niagara Gorge Findlay site, a WNY Land Conservancy project, already have nurseries producing plants to order. For Findlay, a couple of nearby nurseries are producing 15,000 plugs of forty-three locally collected North American native species. Other growers are producing seed from six locally collected native species. But it’s not enough. More growers are needed for more restoration projects, and more growers and individuals will be needed to grow native plant species—especially as the customers request those. Rising observes that until recently it was difficult for anybody seeking native plants to find them: “Helping garden suppliers to identify, advertise, and sell those plants to their customers is, I think, one of the most important goals of the Native Plants Collaborative.”
For more about native plants, check out "A September Hike—the Native Plants You’ll See."