Saturday, June 29, 2019

Repopulating the Community With Native Wildflowers

My younger daughter Anna recently returned from a year in Bolivia, and since she loves to walk, we headed out across town towards Mountain Lakes. It gave me a chance to check out, or check in on, some of the plantings I've been involved in creating over the years. It was surprising how many we encountered along the way. There are the rain gardens adopted at the Westminster parking lot, plantings on both sides of the high school, a couple gardens around Mountain Lakes House, and then on the way back we stopped by the courtyard behind the Community Park Elementary, where I recently helped a bit with a garden planted by students under the leadership of Georgette Stern. Those are projects west of my house. Extending eastward are plantings at the Whole Earth Center, Smoyer Park and a botanical garden being established at Herrontown Woods.


Since many of the plants now in public places come from my backyard, or in many cases "through" my backyard from wildflower seeds collected from native populations along the canal, there are recurrent themes.

A pollinator flying around town will encounter these bottlebrush buckeyes in my yard, at Mountain Lakes House, and now at the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

These backyard clouds of tall meadow rue were first found along the canal, then traveled to my yard and from there to the various gardens around town. The new populations are particularly important because the original patch along the canal is being grown over by invasive porcelainberry vine.

Virginia sweetspire came from a nursery, but creates suckers that can be easily dug and transplanted to public places.

Divisions from these backyard oakleafed hydrangias have also become ambassadors of native beauty in the community.

The richweed in the front left of this photo is a rare native that first arrived in the backyard via a plant rescue from a stream restoration site on the university campus. Though it doesn't have showy flowers, the hydrangia-like foliage makes an attractive massing in a flower bed. Again, the backyard was a conduit, as the richweed's seedlings are now growing at Herrontown Woods.


Some beebalm given to me by a friend mixes with the tall meadow rue from the canal.

Division from that beebalm now thrive at the Herrontown Woods botanical garden, protected from the deer by some fencing.

Sundrops, here mixed with deer tongue grass--a common native grass in local floodplains--also made the journey from backyard to botanical garden,

as did cupplant, a giant wildflower here catching rain in its "cup." This is probably the tenth or twentieth generation from the original plant rescued in 1994 from next to a dumpster behind Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT.

Fox sedge is a common local sedge that has an attractive shape that works for informal gardens.

A more recent find is purple milkweed (distinct from common, swamp, green, butterflyweed, etc.), a few specimens of which are now traveling from their original location at the Veblen House grounds to begin growing elsewhere in town.

Others have yet to travel, like black-eyed Susan,


and Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), a native I've never seen growing in the wild, given to us by a friend our first full summer in Princeton, when the 17 year cicadas were having a look all around.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage people to dig up plants from their gardens and spread them indiscriminately throughout town. Given how weeds can travel in dirt, I'm careful to introduce to new areas only seeds or bareroot plants, with a strong preference for local genotypes rather than bred varieties. The goal that began this process was to make isolated remnant populations of this or that native species less isolated and more resilient by starting new populations in auspicious conditions elsewhere in town.

There's a long-standing irony that the wildflowers native to an area are often the least encountered by people living in suburban landscapes dominated by non-native plants. This process of seed collection, division and transplanting, natural to a gardener, can help bring back some native diversity in the community, for people as well as pollinators to enjoy.

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