Wild Things: Author Sees Need for Natives

Some years ago, Charlotte Adelman experienced a series of revelations that changed her outlook on gardening.

Milkweed Blooms Feed Adult Butterflies

Milkweed Blooms Feed Adult Butterflies, but the Leaves are Essential to Caterpillars

Walking through her suburban Chicago neighborhood, she saw a goldfinch pluck a seed from a coneflower and realized that her traditional garden — even the parts designed with birds in mind — was flawed.

“Belatedly, it dawned on me that flower seeds, not only the fruits, provide birds with food,” she writes in the introduction to The Midwestern Native Garden: Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants (Ohio University, $26.95).

“During another walk in a local park, I noticed that the hostas and day lilies from China did not attract much of anything. In contrast, and to my astonishment, numerous butterflies, skippers and bees surrounded the native black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and blazing stars.”

Those observations prompted Adelman and her husband, Bernard L. Schwartz, to transform their landscape, replacing the nonnative plants with native species that support indigenous animals and insects.

The two retired lawyers — self-taught naturalists — have teamed to write the recently published Midwestern Native Garden, which offers suggestions for native plants to replace common exotics that fail to provide food or shelter for our creatures.

“We live in an era where urban sprawl and pesticides are eliminating large areas that hold native plants,” she said in a phone interview. “We who garden have a choice: Do we want to help these plants that support our animals?”

Her answer is an unqualified “yes.” She cites a study that shows 200 species of native plants are extinct in the United States and 29 percent are at risk of dying out.

“If we’re going to have butterflies, if we are going to have birds, it’s within our hands to make that happen,” she said. “That means thinking about what we’re planting.”

Adelman shows particular concern for butterflies, each species of which lays eggs on one or two plant species. The monarch, for example, uses only milkweed for its caterpillars. Lose those plants, and we lose those butterflies.

The 268-page paperback is flush with possible substitutions of common garden plants from ajuga and day lilies to tansy and chrysanthemums.

Some of the suggested native substitutions differ greatly from the nonnative. For example, Adelman and Schwartz name golden alexander, a shrubby plant with ferny foliage, as a possible successor to the daffodil, which is more erect and contained. But the golden alexander would be about the right height and would add yellow to the garden in spring. Plus, it grows in similar conditions.

In other cases, the native substitutions look so much like the plant they would replace that using the exotic makes no sense.

“Why have an invasive or nonnative plant when you have one that is virtually identical?” Adelman asked.

“It’s our responsibility to plant native plants. We just choose plants that are similar enough to replace nonnative plants and be a host for a butterfly or serve a pollinator.”

She cited heuchera as an alternative to lady’s mantle, both of which have flat, roundish leaves.

Native Solomon’s seal is another example, looking almost identical to the alien species. Beardtongue would easily step in for the nonnative foxglove, she said.

Adelman said the book’s goal is to raise awareness of the vital role that native plants play in the ecosystem and prompt gardeners to consider options.

“When I see nonnative plants — they are major elements in everybody’s designs — they cover vast square miles,” she said. “They do no good for an (ecosystem). They take up space that could be used for beneficial plants.”

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