As spring arrives, plants once again emerge from the cool, moist soil. One of the most charming to unfurl its leaves is Canadian wild ginger. Native to most of the eastern half of North America, wild ginger has deep green, slightly fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, which grow in clusters close to the ground. Each pair of wild ginger stems produces a single, small, brownish-purple flower hidden under its leaves that is said to resemble “rotting carcasses.” This characteristic, as well as the flowers’ ground-level accessibility, is attractive to flies that emerge from the ground in the spring. It’s unclear whether these flies serve as the main pollinators, but they do spread pollen from plant to plant.
Another insect provides the plants a method to extend their territory in a manner employed by a number of our native spring ephemerals. A portion of the seed produces, as one source terms it, “a little oily food gift attached to the seed.”* This attachment (called an elaiosome) attracts ants, which carry the seeds to their underground nests to be used for food. The activities of these ants keep the soil loose and well-aerated, creating a perfect environment for germination, and the seeds sprout in their new location, producing a new cluster of plants.
In its native forest habitat, wild ginger thrives in colonies in moist soil beneath the shade of deciduous trees. In the home native plant garden, it makes an excellent ground cover for shady areas, keeping its foliage through the summer. It spreads by rhizomes (underground root systems) and can extend its colony six to eight inches in each direction yearly—in addition to showing up wherever its seeds have been conveyed. Unless you’re an ant, it’s difficult to grow wild ginger from seed; plants are best purchased from a reliable native plant source or dug from another gardener’s cluster.
Native Americans and early European settlers are said to have used wild ginger root as a spice, candied it as a treat, and used syrup made from the candying process as a sweetener. However, wild ginger contains small amounts of toxic compounds; scientists caution that no part of it should be eaten. It has also been used in poultices to treat wounds, and in fact, antibiotic compounds have been identified in components of the plant.
If you have a shady spot in need of some ground cover, why not consider Canadian wild ginger?
Canadian wild ginger: Asarum canadense
Goldenrods come in more than 100 different varieties, many of which are native to northern Illinois. Their fluffy, bright yellow flowers add color to the late-summer garden and attract honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, ants, beetles, moths, and butterflies. And despite a bad reputation for “causing” hayfever, they’re not guilty! The real culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod and produces a lightweight pollen easily carried by the wind. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, requiring pollinators for dispersal.
Goldenrods range from the diminutive one or two feet of the woodland varieties to the sun-loving varieties that stand on erect stems to six or eight feet tall. There is a goldenrod that will thrive in prairie, woodland, or wetland; accordingly their sun and soil requirements vary, but too much water or fertilizer may cause their long stems to flop. Some types, notably the native (despite its name) Canadian goldenrod, can be tall, weedy, and aggressive, but many varieties are more mannerly and better suited to home gardens. Bluestem goldenrod is best grown in partial sun and dry soil with some rocky content. Elm-leaved goldenrod is a shorter variety that prefers shade to semi-shade and medium-moist to dry soil. Showy goldenrod, with blooms that live up to its name, prefers dry soil and full sun. Stiff goldenrod has leaves that turn red in the fall and enjoys full sun and moist to slightly dry conditions; it is not too picky about soil type.
In some parts of the world, goldenrods are considered a sign of good luck. The leaves contain some rubber; Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod as a material for tires, and during World War II an unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce goldenrod as a commercial rubber source. A species of goldenrod has been used in herbal medicine as a kidney tonic. Native Americans used goldenrod leaves to relieve sore throats and chewed the roots to soothe toothache.
Bluestem goldenrod: Solidago caesia
Elm-leaved goldenrod: Solidago ulmifolia
Showy goldenrod: Solidago speciosa
Stiff goldenrod: Solidago rigida
Butterflies and moths: Lepidoptera
Honeybees: Apis mellifera
American Spikenard is not a shrub—it has no woody structure that stands through the winter—yet it bursts out of the ground in mid-spring, its long, maroon-to-black stems and dark green leaves reaching higher each year as it matures, to a height of up to five feet. Combine this considerable height with large, compound leaves that are subdivided into nine to 21 leaflets, and spikenard makes a formidable plant that you want to give a bit of space to—as if it were, well, a shrub!
An unrelated plant used for aromatherapy and native to India has the same common name, Spikenard (a common problem with common names!), and should not be confused with our native, Aralia racemosa, which is right at home in the Chicago area.
In late June, this easily grown plant starts displaying its blossoms: tiny greenish-white clusters of blooms on long upright stems. After flowers emerge and their main pollinators, bees, have done their work, the real show begins. Racemes loaded with small, showy red berries spill out over the dark-green leaves, the berries eventually turning deep purple. There is no other plant that resembles Spikenard, with its long, branching dark stems, big bushy leaves, and striking berries, yet this North American beauty is rarely seen in Chicago gardens.
The plant grows in a wide range of soils (sandy, clay, loamy), though it’s a denizen of cool, moist, rocky forests, often found on north-facing slopes. It thrives in full shade to part sun, and because it can often coexist happily with tree roots, Spikenard may be successful where few other plants will thrive. It prefers moist soil but will tolerate drought. Plants propagate slowly, both by self-seeding and along spreading rhizomes.
Spikenard is related to Ginseng. Its large, bulbous roots are marvelously aromatic and have been used as tea, in soups, or, like sarsaparilla, to make root beer. Native Americans used the root as medicine, for external use as a poultice for burns, ulcers, skin irritations, and swelling; and the roots and berries together were used for many internal uses, too. The berries can be made into wine, jam, or vinegar. Some gardeners have described American Spikenard as a “neglected native.” Maybe it’s time to pay this showy, shrubby perennial some attention.
Scientific Name American Spikenard: Aralia Racemosa
The wild columbines are blooming red and yellow as May comes to a close, each delicate but spectacular flower consisting of a fountain-like cluster of five spikey, cone-shaped, hollow petals, with yellow stamens showering out the center. Because the hollow petals are so deep, this plant requires long-tongued pollinators: bumblebees and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Columbine is easy to grow. It likes light shade or partial sun, though it may tolerate full sun. It’s satisfied with moist to dry conditions and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. With a few exceptions, you can find wild columbine in a variety of habitats throughout Illinois.
Columbine is considered a perennial, but is short-lived. Though not prolific, it usually manages to increase in numbers of plants a little each year by seed. One native plant gardener, though, told us her columbine up and moved to the neighbor’s yard, never to return home. Another example of how our genetically robust natives sometimes choose their own placement without our permission.
While columbine blooms in late spring, some gardeners like to keep the blooms going for many weeks by cutting off the spent ones before seeds form. The energy saved from seed making goes into making more flowers.
Leafminer larvae may feed on the leaves, causing light-colored tunnels, but they rarely destroy the plant. Because its leaves are toxic, you generally don’t need to worry about columbine being nibbled by common mammals, such as rabbits or deer.
According to some lore, Meskwaki Indians used ground columbine seeds as an ingredient in a love potion. One source reports it was at one time considered America’s national flower because the spiked flower petals resemble a bald eagle’s talons. Some common names for this plant are granny’s bonnets (picture your granny wearing a columbine-shaped hat) and dancing fairies. And who couldn’t use some dancing fairies in their garden?
Wild columbine: Aquilegia canadensis
Ruby-throated hummingbird: Archilochus colubris
Bumblebee: Bombus species
Leaf miner: Lyriomyza species
The sweetest of spring’s early native flowers has just sprung up along the stepping stones in this Chicago front yard. Liverwort is its common name, but its botanical name, Hepatica, has a pretty ring to it that matches the little plant’s delicate yet stunning beauty.
Right about the time when the familiar, non-native crocuses come out—when the snow has barely cleared—Hepatica sends up hairy stalks bearing droopy buds among the tattered remnants of its winter leaves. Then, all at once, most of the buds turn upward and pop open into a disarmingly brilliant little bouquet of flowers that are made up of white, pink, blue or lavender sepals (not true petals), each flower about an inch across. There is much variation in color among plants but always the stark white stamens surround a center of green carpels. Stamens and carpels represent male and female flower parts, respectively.
This five-inch tall plant has attractive, pointy, three-lobed leaves tinged in purple, though there is a native variety with rounded leaves. While the flowers bloom, last year’s leaves recede, making way for a new set that will grace the woodland garden until they are buried by next winter’s snow.
The accessible, open flowers serve a wide variety of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and beetles—which is generous of the little plant, because so few flowers are available now to the insects venturing out to find them.
Hepatica, as delicate as it looks, is a tough plant as long as it has a some leaf litter and soil that is well drained. The plant was named because of its prior use as a liver remedy and its constituents include flavonoids and saponins, pharmacologically active compounds. Native Americans used the local species to treat abdominal pains, poor digestion, constipation, and gynecological issues. The genus has species native to eastern North America, northern Europe, and Asia.
If you have a little space under a tree, and you don’t insist on clearing all the leaves in the fall, plant a few Hepatica specimens and prepare to be delighted in the spring by this diminutive beauty that has made its home in the Midwest for thousands of years!
Scientific names: Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
When mid-nineteenth century plough technology finally made “breaking” the tough prairie sod feasible, the extraordinary fertility of Midwestern soil was revealed and the destruction of the prairie immediately got underway. Then modern development and agricultural methods increased the pace, until today only 1/10th of one percent of original, remnant prairie remains in Illinois, with similar tiny percentages for other types of remnant habitats.
Remnant habitat: Why should we care?
Jerry Wilhelm, PhD, co-author of the 4th edition of The Plants of the Chicago Region, says emphatically, “There is nothing we can do for our grandchildren that is more important than to preserve the remnants that are left, and to try to return health to the soil.” The remnants are a font of genetic diversity that exists nowhere else, and healthy soil cools the atmosphere, replenishes the water table, and protects rivers and streams, he explains.
Wilhelm calls remnant lands “the living tissue of the earth,” its original skin. The species diversity found on these tiny parcels of original wild lands is way beyond what can be reproduced in new native plantings, and this diversity is the safety net evolution has provided that allows for calamities to be overcome through redundancies in natural systems. Such redundancies have kept natural systems in balance for millennia, but the webs that they create are being broken as extinctions occur across our flora and fauna in the modern era.
The way we treat soil and water now ignores the natural laws that our very existence depends upon, Wilhelm warns. Healthy soil is replete with organic material, which gives it tremendous water-retention capacity that in turn mitigates the wildly fluctuating climate scenarios we are now experiencing across our landscapes. Modern agricultural practices and development strip the soil and send it with our rainwater, polluted, into our waterways, rather than keeping soil in place and water where it falls, as has been nature’s way for millennia. Finally, tilling the soil dumps enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, a rarely discussed source of greenhouse gas.
Wilhelm explains that climate change isn’t only about atmospheric CO2. “It’s the whole living system,” he says. The earth’s natural skin is made up of healthy soil that is able to regulate its own temperature, a moderating effect that is transferred to the atmosphere above it. Healthy soil is full of many forms of life and a measure of porosity that allows water to be held in those pores. Water has a special property that allows it to heat and cool only very slowly, so that soil with sufficient moisture does not experience extreme temperature fluctuations.
“Healthy soil contains about 55 percent soil moisture,” Wilhelm says, “which gives it a connection to the thermal mass of the earth below so that its temperature cannot change rapidly. This, in turn, allows the organisms in the soil that depend upon a stable, slowly changing temperature regime to thrive. ”
It is this healthy community of organisms that, in turn, allows the soil to retain moisture and the organisms and roots within it to continue to fix carbon in the soil. When the soil becomes depleted of organic matter, soil moisture drops to as low as 20 percent, Wilhelm says. Then there is not enough water in the system to protect the living organisms, and the system can no longer thermoregulate.
“That presents a real danger,” Wilhelm warns. “It’s what’s wrong with our land. If you look at our region in Google Earth, you will see how high a percentage of our land in Illinois is planted in soy and corn, in commodity-scale agriculture. That soil has lost its organic matter.”
Depleted soils, such as those under commodity agricultural crops, experience “fever and chills,” says Wilhelm. And the atmosphere above those soils does the same. “The commodity farmer has to irrigate to bring the soil moisture up, and that soil is only alive about 90 days per year. Every time the farmer tills, organic matter is lost to oxidation. That means that farmers have to irrigate the soil and when it is not irrigated the temperature of the soil fluctuates wildly.”
Wilhelm adds that we have similar problems with the soil beneath our lawns and paved areas, where little or no water infiltration can occur.
Today’s earth has third-degree burns
“It’s almost as if the whole earth skin has third-degree burns,” he says. “We have to get the organic matter back into the soil. We have to allow perennial grass roots—which go down into the soil up to 15 feet—to grow and die every year. That will replenish the organic matter and bring the soil back to life.
Another soil health problem is compaction, from the depletion of spongy organic matter and the use of heavy equipment. “The more we subsidize, and the more land we put into commodity agriculture, the more compacted the soils become and so when we do get rain, the soil’s ability to absorb the water has been reduced. So, this precious resource simply runs off—causing havoc to downstream neighbors and aquatic systems.”
To Wilhelm, it’s simple: If we don’t put organic matter back into the soil and allow natural thermoregulation to occur, we will keep having broad climate fluxes, we will face extinctions, and we will be in for a very bad time. “Slowly but surely, we have to go in that direction, to preserve the remnants that are left, and to try to return health to the soil. But the remnants are important, you have to have some living tissue, you can’t start it from nothing.”
Why remnants are supreme among native plantings
Among the signs of health on any parcel of open land is the number of native species still present, both plant and animal. Wilhelm says that his co-author on the current book-in-progress, Laura Rericha, has found as many as 26 bee species in her home garden, which hosts an array of native plants. Yet, he adds, Laura has found more than 62 species of bee on Amorpha canescens [lead plant] alone in a remnant prairie; there is no comparison between native gardens whose owners seek to replicate the prairie, and the genuine article.
“You can’t just plant plants and get all our insects back,” Wilhelm says. “Ninety percent of our native insect species live in our remnants. We have over 400 species of bee in our region, but you can’t put them into unhealthy soil [many of our native bees are ground-dwelling, as opposed to the European honey bee]. And you may be able to build a healthy soil, but that bee may be in a remnant 20 miles away. And then, there are so many connections; some of these bees are parasitic on other bees, for example.”
Yet, Wilhelm is not saying we should give up on planting natives in our yards and parks. His own backyard is full of natives and he performs a prescribed burn, simulating the burning native Americans performed for millennia on our wild lands, every year. He encourages everyone to do what they can to plant and preserve native species, and gives solace and encouragement to those working to know and love and support our native flora and fauna.
“What’s important is what is in your heart. There’s a force there. If you’re not doing that, what else are you doing? Tie yourself to something real. When you start trying to restore, you reach a better frame of mind.” Finally, he adds, paraphrasing Rachel Carson, “If you are devoted to nature and love its beauty, you’ll have less of an inclination to destroy it.”
Monica Buckley interviewed Gerould (Jerry) Wilhelm, Ph.D., for this post. Wilhelm is director of research, Conservation Research Institute. He and co-author wildlife biologist Laura Rericha are updating and expanding Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm’s 1994 reference book, Plants of the Chicago Region, to be renamed Flora of the Chicago Region: An Ecological Synthesis. The new book will include observations on regional fauna and geology in addition to regional flora. It will be published by Conservation Research Institute and the Indiana Academy of Sciences.
To learn more about native ecosystem function and restoration, go to http://www.conservationresearchinstitute.org to read essays by Jerry Wilhelm.
The image of Wolf Road Prairie in midsummer was taken by Dan Kirk of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The image of Jerry Wilhelm leading a group at Wolf Road Prairie was taken by Dave Wacie for the Salt Creek Greenway Association.
Teachers of landscaping and plant ID classes can still be heard saying something like “This is a great plant to use—it’s completely pest-free!” The assumption is that insects are pests, that we do not want them in our landscapes. But this is the language and thinking of yesteryear, of a culture that took to extremes the manicured landscape aesthetic that post-WWII suburbia borrowed from late 19th-century robber barons who borrowed it from English lords…it is a culture that views nature as a thing to be dominated, and it requires constant mowing and clipping and chemical applications, until our neighborhoods look the same year round and ring with the abrasive sounds of these activities to the exclusion of what might be the sound of birds singing, or even a breeze in the trees. Bugs of all sorts are not to be tolerated; we must not allow the leaves of our plants to be consumed. Yet, for eons, countless creatures that are part of the complex web of life on earth have counted on leaves for their survival.
The thing about bugs is: even if you don’t enjoy them for their own charms, or because they evolved with us and each species is unique, we need them! They pollinate our food crops; they are first responders in dispatching with dead things; they provide the protein that allows our favorite animals, songbirds, to raise their broods. Some are considered lovely and charismatic in their own right, like butterflies and dragonflies. In some countries, insects provide a key source of protein for humans. Even here, a few adventurous foodies have begun trying them out.
Of course, bugs can be pests, bugs can be damaging; but few native insects are, because they depend on a healthy ecosystem for their own survival. It tends to be the exotic bugs, with no natural enemies in their adopted environment, that cause trouble, or our own agricultural practices, such as monocropping, or planting acres and acres of a single crop.
Yet we tend to lump all the insects together as a collective ickiness, and we wipe out insect allies along with insect enemies. Here in the Midwest, we destroy the plants our native insects depend on. Roundup©-ready crops mean that crop dusters can rain down herbicide, killing any plant that isn’t genetically engineered to withstand it. Along with those plants go the insects that depend upon them for food, many of which specialize and can develop only on one species of plant or genus of plants. The 2013 migration of monarch butterflies has shrunk to a fraction of its former size and scientists have expressed concern that the fabled migration may disappear altogether; a ride through the countryside where genetically altered corn is grown can be eerily quiet…and “pest-free.” In these stretches of country, many of the native insects have nothing to eat, and the birds that depend on them don’t, either. Monarchs, though iconic and readily recognized by most Midwesterners, are not the only native insects that lose out when we lose our native plants. Another beauty, once very common in Chicago, is the polyphemus moth, pictured above. Its widely diverse diet of the leaves of many kinds of native trees and shrubs help it survive (whereas a specialist like the monarch can eat only from plants in the milkweed genus), and it can still be found in the city, although it’s a night flyer. The adult does not eat—it doesn’t even have a working mouth!
The Chicago region is blessed with a rich and diverse natural heritage. Planting natives in our yards helps preserve what remains of that heritage. Allowing insects to have their share of the native plants upon which they rely rather than running for the sprayer is an act of generosity and kindness to fellow beings that helps heal the landscape and build healthy wildlife habitat. These creatures provide protein for the birds that eat them, and the birds keep the number of insects in check.
Scientific name: Antheraea polyphemus
Caterpillar image by photochem_PA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Adult polyphemus moth image by Mark Meravy
The cheerfully bright-yellow golden alexanders is an easy-to-grow native host in our area for the black swallowtail caterpillar—though the caterpillar will also eat the non-native Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, and other plants of the Apiaceae, or carrot (sometimes called parsley), family. The plant has a wide range and can be found in the wild throughout the eastern United States, into Canada, and west to the Rocky Mountains.
Blooming midspring through June, golden alexanders grows in a range of soils, including clay and sand. It can take partial shade to full sun. While it likes wet soil, it will tolerate drying out, which makes it a good rain-garden plant.
Golden alexanders can get a little exuberant when it comes to reseeding, so, in small gardens where plant diversity is desired, plant it where there’s some shade, which dampens its enthusiasm a bit. For a more traditional look, cut off the spent flowers as their blooms fade. This keeps the plants tidy and also keeps reseeding to a minimum, preventing the creation of a little colony; though some gardeners revel in its tendency to fill space by spreading through seed. The pretty, spikey foliage and happy 3-inch yellow umbels make these plants worth the trouble—and what could be better than playing host to black swallowtail babies, some of whom will serve as food for breeding birds?
Golden alexanders: Zizia aurea
Black swallowtail: Papilio polyxenes
Black swallowtail adult visiting golden alexanders used with permission from Janet Allen, whose blog can be found at www.ourhabitatgarden.org
There is nothing as graceful as a monarch butterfly sailing with strong wing strokes over the garden wall, and few moments as enjoyable as when that butterfly stays to visit, floating from flower to flower.
The spectacle of monarchs crossing the Midwest by the millions every Fall on their way to their winter roost in Mexico is among the little miracles of nature that mark the turn of the seasons for Chicago-area residents. We still don’t understand the mechanism by which these creatures find their way back; those returning are often as many as four generations away from those that returned the previous year!
Yet this legendary migration is under threat, with 2013 butterfly counts the lowest they’ve ever been and scientists warning that the migration will soon come to an end if the trend continues. Adult monarchs need lots of nectar to fuel their migration, and butterfly-loving gardeners often plant nectar-heavy flowers to attract them. But equally essential to the monarch’s survival are the plants they lay their eggs on—the only plants their caterpillars are able to eat: the milkweeds. To really support the monarch, plant its food plants and don’t be upset about a bit of leaf damage—the sign of happily growing baby monarchs! Their nibbles rarely harm these perennial plants.
There are many species of milkweed, and some are exceptionally beautiful. They grow to various heights and feature flowers that range across species from pink to purple to white to yellow to orange. There is a milkweed to complement every garden. All milkweeds fit in gardens with other native plants, but many can also work in the traditional border or cottage garden.
Each milkweed has its preferred ecological niche. The intensely fire-orange, short-statured butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), for example, prefers well-drained soil. Many of us know the pink-blossomed common milkweed (A. syriaca) from the empty lots and open fields of our childhoods. It is tall, spreads easily, and is quite happy in a range of conditions. Sullivant’s milkweed, A. sullivantii, resembles common milkweed but does not spread. A. incarnata, AKA rose, red, or swamp milkweed, is a pretty, dark pink milkweed that doesn’t mind clay and periods of inundation. The white A. verticillata stays under two feet and can tolerate poor, gravelly soil. The intensely colored purple milkweed, A. purpurascens, is fine with part shade, favoring the woodland edge. There are several other gorgeous milkweeds native to our area: a milkweed to fit every garden!
Learning which species are suited to your conditions can help you incorporate these important native plants into a garden that will host the entire lifecycle of the regal monarch. It takes a monarch less than a month to go from egg to adult, and in the northern summer our gardens can support as many as four generations before migration begins in the Fall.
It has become essential, if our children are to enjoy these beautiful creatures, that city and suburban areas host healthy stands of milkweed. Monarch habitat is under siege. Developed complexes of sterile lawns have taken over much of its habitat; farmland is now planted with Roundup-ready crops that are heavily sprayed with herbicide, preventing wildflowers such as milkweeds from growing between the rows and along roadsides; and woodlands and prairies with the full complement of native plants are now extremely rare. At the southern end of the monarch’s migration, in Mexico, illegal logging continues to erode habitat.
More and more, it is up to gardeners to provide the native plants that many of our butterflies require. For the monarch, it’s the milkweed. Plant some in your garden, or consult a native plant nursery or landscaper to choose the right combination of plantings for your soil, light, and moisture conditions.
Fun facts about monarch butterflies
They can fly for 11 hours before having to rest
The milkweeds they eat as larvae impart a nasty-tasting toxin to the adults’ bodies that make birds avoid them
Their distinctive orange and black coloring is mimicked by the viceroy butterfly, helping to protect it from birds that might mistake it for a monarch
You can document your milkweed planting and be recognized as an official monarch waystation. Go to Monarch Waystations at http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/
Monarch caterpillar image used with permission from the North Carolina Botanical Gardens