Landscaping with native wildflowers and grasses for backyard beauty and wildlife is becoming popular in Canada. In an effort to inform Canadians about some of the issues and rationale behind this wonderful, environmentally sustainable approach to landscaping and gardening, the following article presents some food for thought.
Just what is a native plant? Native species are those that occurred naturally here at the time of settlement and were not brought in from other areas of the country or other continents. Some plants are so common in Canada now that many people mistakenly consider them natives: smooth brome grass, crested wheatgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, quack grass, Canada thistle, dandelion and wild oats. All are Eurasian imports that have no natural place here.
An authentic native garden involves the planting of a diverse mix of species native to that particular area, with the seed collected as close as possible to the planting site. Grasses are an important component of the mix along with various native legumes and other broad-leaved wildflowers and shrubs. Locally collected seed stocks are crucial to maintaining what is left of the biological diversity of native species in most of southern Canada.
What about the many so-called wildflower mixes available from many stores and seed companies? They often are accompanied with colourful advertising promising an “instant” meadow that will reduce maintenance and attract butterflies. The origins of many of these seeds are outside Canada from large commercial flower farms in the United States and Europe. They may be wildflowers somewhere, but they often are not native to Canada.
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus) and oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) have no place in a Canadian native wildflower garden. These non-native seed mixes often contain species that may aggressively out-compete more desirable native plants. Some popular canned mixes even contain the seeds of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) — a European ornamental flower that has destroyed wetlands all over Canada! Some companies do not care where their seed and plant material come from. They often are grown thousands of miles away.
If you care and want to make a difference, use local native seeds and plants. Ask your supplier questions about the origin of their stock. If they do not know or care, or if the seeds have not been collected in your region, look elsewhere. Native nurseries now are found in almost every province. By supporting these businesses, you are making a direct contribution to maintaining biological diversity in the face of almost overwhelming odds.
Collecting your own seeds from remnant native stands in ditches, field edges, along railways, highways, streams, lakeshores and industrial areas is another way to get your seeds. Small pockets of native plants can be found in almost every city and town in Canada, including some of the most urbanized areas. Propagating these struggling populations ensures their survival. It saves you money, too! (Editor’s note: it is better to only collect a portion of the seeds from a portion of the plants to ensure that sufficient seeds remain to propagate the plants in the wild.)
Learning about your local flora and involving the family in seed collection is a fun and exciting activity for all ages. Leave your shovel at home — transplants rarely work and they severely damage remnant habitats. Collect and grow their seed instead. This is what the plants want you to do, and you will help to fulfill their survival goals. It also will fill your yard with a beautiful, diverse and locally adapted ecosystem.
Gardening with native species makes us partners in a very important environmental mission — that of conserving the local genetic stock of the prairie that has all but disappeared in the face of “progress.” Canada’s tall grass prairie virtually is gone — less than one percent of its original area remains intact today in southern Ontario and Manitoba. Barely 20 percent of western Canada’s mixed grass prairie remains. Carolinian Canada, as well as east and west coast native floras, are a small fraction of what they once were. In the span of just one person’s lifetime, we have lost much of the native flora from large parts of southern Canada.
Keeping alive native plants by providing a place for them to grow is an important contribution to ensuring that the genetic stock of these scattered prairie remnants never becomes extinct. New medicines or food crops from these plants could well be waiting to be discovered. If they all are lost, however, we will never know what benefits may come from our rich, ancient plant heritage. Where would we be today if some careless past society had wiped out the wild ancestors of domestic corn, wheat, barley or rice?
Another reason to restore native plants is their attractiveness to wildlife. Many rare and endangered critters depend upon native plants. The plants provide habitat for numerous butterflies, songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and mammals. Even small plantings of native species can provide significant wildlife habitat. This habitat sometimes is the only refuge for species in increasingly urban environments.
Monarch butterflies have become increasingly rare over the past decade because of loss of both their breeding and southern wintering habitats. The only plants they will lay their eggs on are native milkweeds (Asclepias species), which coincidentally are some of the most attractive native flowers. Other natives such as the spectacular meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylus) provide important sources of nectar for monarchs. Native sunflowers are magnets for goldfinches. These colourful summer residents simply love the high-quality seeds provided by narrow-leaved (Helianthus angustifolius), beautiful (Helianthus laetiflorus) and rough false (Heliopsis helianthoides) sunflower. Nearly every native plant has several species of native wildlife that depend upon it.
Native species have the advantage of thousands of years of adaptation to Canadian conditions — soil, water, climate and light levels. By a process known as natural selection, they have evolved a variety of mechanisms to cope with everything that nature can throw at them. Drought, floods, extremes of heat and cold, short growing seasons, and early and late frosts have little effect on native species because they have evolved with them.
Most plant species now used in Canada for landscaping are horticultural and agricultural varieties native to other parts of the world. Few have any natural adaptations to local conditions. Many of them require intensive maintenance and constant replanting to survive.
There also is the undeniable excitement in growing something that gives us a sense of both our natural and cultural history. These species were important in the ecology of the diverse grasslands, forests and wetlands that once covered southern Canada. They nourished bison in uncounted numbers and waved in the sunshine of ten thousand summers. They provided sustenance for Native peoples and figured prominently in their medicine and spiritual beliefs. Early settlers depended upon them for food and raw materials. Growing native prairie plants not only helps us establish roots in the soil, but also roots with our past.
Native Canadian plants, with their deep root systems and perennial nature, also are ideal for soil conservation plantings. Shorelines, riverbanks and other erodible soils often are best held in place by diverse native ecosystems, not expensive engineering works. Native species are tolerant of and adapted to a wide variety of soil types. There are native species for dry, wet, saline, heavy and light soils. Native species formed and conserved our rich soils over millennia. They are beginning to play an important role here again.
For landscape architects and commercial and government agencies, native species offer a practical alternative to conventional, high-maintenance landscaping of public places, industrial areas, parks and road rights-of-way. In today’s era of declining budgets, native plantings are easier to justify to cost-conscious clients and taxpayers. They also contribute to the image of environmental awareness and sensitivity that today’s “green” marketplace and society demand. Providing increased wildlife habitat for public viewing is another benefit to these agencies. Native plantings in public areas are tough and beautiful alternatives to manicured, environmentally damaging and biologically sterile expanses of Kentucky bluegrass lawns and petunia beds.
Aesthetically, native wildflowers and grasses provide at least as much colour and attractiveness as conventional landscapes. Beginning in early spring, and lasting through September frosts into winter, native species provide an ever-changing carpet of shape, colour and texture. From the furry mauve prairie crocus (Anemone patens) or trillium (Trillium species) poking through April snowdrifts, through the jade green lushness of mid-June grasses and snowy anemones (Anemone species), to the radiant blazingstars (Liatris species) of summer, and from the graceful fall splash of bright goldenrods (Solidago species) and purple asters (Aster species), to the subtle golden tan of the winter native garden, native plants provide a natural ever-changing show of unequalled beauty on the Canadian landscape.
Planting native species also has significant economic advantages. Costs for planting native species are very competitive with traditional methods. Long-term maintenance costs for prairie plantings often are lower as the perennial native plants take care of themselves. All that is required is an occasional cutting back of the old growth, and vigilance to ensure non-native weeds do not creep in. Expensive, environmentally damaging regimes of constant watering, mowing and fertilizer applications are not required.
So, if you believe in conservation and attracting wildlife to your yard, you can do both admirably well by using native Canadian plants. You do not need a vast acreage — just a small corner of the yard or some deep pots on a sunny balcony can bring the benefits of Canada’s showy native species to your home. You will have a beautiful biologically diverse landscape. Perhaps more importantly, you will be doing your part to ensure these increasingly rare plants and the wildlife that depends upon them never become extinct. Happy planting!!
Prairie Habitats Inc., started in 1987 and owned by Carol and John Morgan, is Canada’s first native prairie nursery and restoration company at Argyle, Manitoba. Prairie Habitats Inc. specializes in propagating over 100 species of native Manitoba plants and using them to restore public and private landscapes to native prairie. Prairie Habitats has been featured in Equinox, Borealis, Harrowsmith, Manitoba Co-operator, Country Guide, The Green Teacher, Farmwoman and Canadian Gardening magazines as well as the Winnipeg Free Press. In 1993, Prairie Habitats was awarded the Friends of Equinox Magazine’s Citation for Environmental Achievement and the Government of Canada’'s125th Anniversary Medal for work restoring Manitoba’s tall grass prairie. A feature article on Prairie Habitats appeared in the January 1993 Equinox magazine. The company also won the Manitoba Government’s Sustainable Development Certificate of Recognition in 1994 and Award of Excellence for Small Business in 1997.
Prairie Habitats Inc. has been actively involved in efforts to promote public awareness and preserve endangered prairie ecosystems. It has conducted several major research projects on prairie inventory, restoration and management. John was instrumental in establishing Manitoba’s 1,800-hectare Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Tolstoi, a co-operative endeavour with a variety of provincial, national and international conservation agencies. He co-wrote and published a manual on prairie restoration for land managers, Restoring Canada’s Native Prairies, the first book of its kind in Canada. John also contributed a chapter in a 1997 book entitled The Tall Grass Restoration Handbook published by Island Press/Society for Ecological Restoration, Washington, D.C. Prairie Habitats Inc. also produced and directed an award-winning film, “Manitoba's Tall Grass Prairie,” which has been shown across North America. He prepared the script and footage for “Restoring Our Prairie Heritage,” an instructional video released in 1999 by Alberta Agriculture.
Prairie Habitats Inc. has pioneered the development of techniques and equipment used by conservationists for ecosystem restoration. Their patented portable seed harvesters now are in use in 17 countries for native seed and specialty crop harvesting. They are a recognized leader in this field and provide restoration consultation and equipment worldwide.
Photo: Prairie Habitats Inc.