Butterflies know: these native plants are not weeds

The first time I met Neil Diboll, he set his front yard on fire. On purpose.

It was part of a lesson Mr. Diboll, a prairie ecologist and nurseryman, wanted to share about native plant communities. The prairie species that had replaced his lawn were adapted to fire, he told me, because regular wildfires had affected their evolution.

That was over 30 years ago. Since then, Mr. Diboll has continued to find dramatic ways to capture and educate gardeners. That’s essential, he knows, when you’re dealing with ideas that are unknown to most people.

Mr. Diboll has now spent 42 years propagating and selling seeds and plants of native species of the Midwest and the East at his Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. And we are in the age of the pollinator plant and the pollinator garden. and interest continues to grow. But that wasn’t always the case.

Mr. Diboll remembers a time when native plants were called weeds, for example.


“When I started this,” he said recently, “the local farmers called us ‘the weed farm.’” (And they didn’t mean cannabis.)

“I think it’s safe to say I was on the prairie when the prairie wasn’t cool,” he added, recalling the first six years of owning the nursery and living in a trailer as evidence remembered. “Let’s just say we were a bit ahead of the curve. I literally couldn’t give this stuff away.”

He remembers that no one — aside from a few academics studying prairie restoration at a few Midwestern universities — knew what a purple coneflower was.

Although now one of the best-known native plants and one of the best-selling, the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) had not yet reached maturity and was considered garden-worthy. That all changed around 1989, Mr. Diboll said.

“Purple coneflower was elevated from wildflower to quote-unquote perennial and allowed inside the garden gate,” he said. “And it paved the way for other native flowers and grasses. It wasn’t just hostas, daylilies and irises anymore.”

Small native nurseries, like the one he bought in 1982, had been propagating and selling the coneflower for a decade, “but the rest of the country wasn’t into it because it wasn’t popular,” he said. “And then all it takes is a few magazine articles, and everyone goes crazy, and they get the new plant.”

But not every plant produces large purple-to-pink flowers with prominent orange centers for weeks that scream “get to know me” like the coneflower does, earning it a moment in the spotlight and a place in so many gardens.

“Despite the fact that you see native plants here and native plants there,” he said, “actual awareness of these plants has still not fully penetrated the consciousness and knowledge base of American gardeners. It is increasing rapidly, but they are still not your favorite plants.”

We’re more likely to be drawn to the annual petunias at the garden center in spring than we are to seek out the perennial wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), with its months-long purple flowers on foot-high stems. But butterflies and hummingbirds know a good thing when they see it.

Mr. Diboll hopes that “The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants,” published last spring and which he wrote with Hilary Cox, a landscape designer and horticulturist, will help spread the word about all the choices available to gardeners. In addition to the detailed portraits of 145 species, the book also covers how to design, distribute and maintain them. (And yes, there’s a chapter on controlled burns, in case you’re interested in setting your own garden on fire.)

As with the coneflower, it is often the color that catches the attention of gardeners. Unless we have a pastel-themed garden, we often leave out white-flowering perennials such as wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), which offers up to three months of blooms to delight people and an impressive diversity of pollinators, Mr. Diboll said.

By preferring more vibrant shades we also miss some other exceptional possibilities. Consider Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), he said, “one of my absolute top 10 favorites.” In summer the three- to six-footer is covered with candlesticks made from wands of small white flowers, held above rows of leaves that encircle the stem in whorls.

“It’s not flashy; it is stylish – in my opinion one of the most stylish of all our native prairie plants,” Mr Diboll said. “It’s regal: just look at its stature and the way it carries itself. Is it beautiful? Is the magazine fantastic? Does it make a statement in a garden if you put three or five together? Oh yeah. But it doesn’t have that big, striking flower.”

To find out whether Culver’s root or another plant is native to your area, Mr. Diboll recommends exploring the distribution maps, known as the BONAP maps, from John T. Kartesz’s Biota of North America Program. He includes them in the book and also on the daycare website.

Like Culver’s root, rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is strikingly architectural, its greenish-white flowers are held three to five feet high and resemble so many little spiky golf balls. Its blue-green basal rosettes of bristly leaves mean it could easily be mistaken for a yucca cousin, Mr. Diboll said, but it actually belongs to the Apiaceae (carrot or parsley) family, an umbellifer.

Popular with a range of bees and wasps, Rattlesnake Master is also widely used by parasitic wasps, Mr Diboll said, making it a great plant for organic gardeners looking for natural pest control.

He tells the story of a customer who had a terrible tomato hornworm problem. The problem disappeared once his little prairie plot, sown from a rattlesnake master seed mix, reached flowering time. It seemed that the wasps were attracted to the nectar of the Eryngium – and then, as if to say thanks, they laid their eggs on the tomato hornworms, parasitizing the pests.

“Correlation does not imply causation, as we all know from statistics,” Mr. Diboll said. “But it’s a pretty strong correlation.”

The customer’s response was straight to the point: “My prairie is my pesticide.”

One genus of white-flowered perennials that has recently attracted the attention of gardeners is mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), one of the most important pollinators. More than five years ago, Mr. Diboll said, there was hardly any demand, but that has changed. The reality that we are in a pollination crisis is starting to sink in.

Another revival: In the 1980s, Prairie Nursery sold pussycats (Antennaria negatica), one of the lowest-growing prairie species, which has rosettes of light green leaves with a fluffy, silvery underside and that induce spring blooms less than a foot high. But demand was so weak that the nursery closed down. Now it’s back.

“I think what has happened here now is people are replacing non-native ground covers with native ground covers,” Mr Diboll said. He rates kitties as “a top” for sandy or gravelly soils, including between rocks (but not for clay soils or even good loam).

A more adaptable species: Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis or Oligoneuron ohioense), which is native to fens and wetlands, and also grows well in clay and good garden soil. It is Mr. Diboll’s choice among goldenrods, with some of the largest flower heads of all, forming a clump of three to four feet high. And it doesn’t spread via rhizomes — underground stem tissue that can sprout new roots and shoots — as some goldenrods do, to the dismay of gardeners.

“Many people dislike Solidagos,” he says. “But I think this one will change a lot of people’s minds.”

Due to the well-known relationship with the monarch butterfly, milkweed (Asclepias) is also finding a place in more and more gardens.

The milkweed (A. verticillata) may not bear the orange or pink flowers of some of its cousins, but Mr. Diboll recommends checking out this white-flowered species. It grows in “really bad soils,” he said, including sandy, rocky soils and even subterranean clay — places most plants hate.

The leaves of the 2- to 1-meter-tall species are “filamentous – very narrow,” he said, but monarch caterpillars use this as a host plant as hungrily as other milkweeds with more substantial foliage. “It is astonishing. You see them dangling from these little leaves – how do they do that?”

He raves about the caterpillars’ agility and appetite, because that’s the point, isn’t it? To welcome and nourish the organisms that power the food web.

In traditional horticulture, Mr. Diboll said, “the goal of the planter has generally been to provide nourishment for himself – either physical nourishment or emotional nourishment.” Perhaps his most important task in recent decades, he said, has been to encourage people to “see the garden as a shared resource for all life.”

That is the message he conveys again and again. “I tell people, ‘If I don’t see holes in the leaves of my plants, I’m a failure as a gardener.’ We need to get rid of this perfectionist: ‘It should be just for us.’ The garden is for others, and that, in my opinion, is the real revolution of native gardening.”


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to gardenand a book of the same name.

If you have a gardening question, email it to Margaret Roach at gardenqanda@nytimes.com and she may address it in a future column.

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