Roots and Shoots: Finding Native Plants

If you’re an ecologically conscious gardener, you know that finding plants can be an adventure. While at least a dozen nurseries and retailers within a 30-minute drive sell plants, only a few stock common native perennials such as Echinacea or black-eyed Susan and some cultivars. 

This broomsedge grass appeared in a field we stopped mowing. The native grass was in the soil's seed bank and if I collect it and grow it, it will be a local ecotype plant. Photo by P. Doan

This broomsedge grass appeared in a field we stopped mowing. The native grass was in the soil’s seed bank and if I collect it and grow it, it will be a local ecotype plant. (Photo by P. Doan)

A few nurseries sell only native plants, such as One Nature in Beacon and Rosedale Nursery and Wild Gardens in Westchester. The Catskill Native Nursery is worth the one-hour drive. And we’re lucky to have those three. The respondents to a survey by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank said they traveled, on average, 500 to 700 miles for seeds and plants. 

Another survey of wholesale plant sellers found that only 25 percent of their stock was native plants and 77 percent were cultivars. 

To understand the layers: A cultivar is a plant that has been bred to have a different characteristic from its parent. For example, Blue Moon (Phlox divaricate) has blue flowers rather than white (Phlox divaricata). Cultivars can be bred to have specific color blooms, leaf and flower shapes and height, among other characteristics. 

However, research has shown that changing the plant can impact its usefulness in the ecosystem. If your goal is to create habitat for pollinators or birds, a cultivar may not have the same attraction. Ulrich Lorimer, horticulture director of the Native Plant Trust, located near Boston, advises shooting for 70 percent straight species in your garden. 

The trust, which was founded in 1900, has been part a campaign to rectify the shortage of native plant material. For the past three decades, it has led a citizen-science project to establish a rare seed bank that has around 400 taxa. With an ecological horticulture program, a robust public education schedule and a botanical garden, the trust was able to use its connections to solicit support for the Northeast Seed Network, which launched in the spring. 

“We want to create a native-plant supply chain that can be trusted for ethical collection, technical knowledge, seed-bank hubs that clean and store material, and to connect users who are doing restoration projects with sources that are recognized and trusted for their rigorous standards,” Lorimer says. 

That addresses another issue of concern: Seed and plant material often don’t include their ecotypes, which are formed by the conditions where they were grown. Soil type and composition, seasonal temperatures, altitude and nearby plants are factors that affect behavior and growth. When a seed is collected but the plant is moved hundreds of miles, the seeds of the following generations are forced to adapt.

The network will use an agricultural technique — seed-increase plots — to ramp up production for bulk orders, making it possible to turn a half-pound of seeds into 100 pounds. “We can grow 1,000 little blue stem in a block, then keep collecting seeds and bulk up the numbers,” explains Lorimer. Working with small farms and land trusts, Lorimer expects it will take five to 10 years to have a broad and diverse collection. 

For the moment, demand is greater than availability. Lorimer sees that as a sign that people are reacting to climate change and loss of biodiversity, and recognizing that their yards can make a difference. Sales and workshop attendance at the Native Plant Trust have bloomed in recent years to unexpected levels. People realize, he says, that plants are not just pretty.

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