Incorporating native plant use in landscape settings

Photos Courtesy of Janice Coons, EIU.
Janice Coons and Nancy Coutant examine the progress of native plants in prairie garden.

The Midwest once supported a multitude of native plants in a mix of widely diverse ecological communities. Midwestern landforms range from heavily glaciated pancake flatlands to steep hills and cliffs. The U.S. westward expansion spread rapidly, and the region quickly became a leader in agriculture with John Deere’s development of the steel plow that worked in the heavy, black, Midwestern loam. The intensive Midwestern agricultural development took a heavy toll on the various ecological communities. During the next century and a half, urban development gobbled up much of the remaining native vegetation. Iowa currently ranks 50th among the states in the amount of presettlement vegetation remaining, and Illinois, 49th.

The loss of a significant portion of native plants throughout the Midwest gradually caught the attention of nature lovers, botanists, geologists and scientists with various interests. George Fell of Illinois was among the early pioneers in trying to preserve natural areas, and his efforts played a major role in the evolvement of The Nature Conservancy and the high-profile forest preserves developed throughout the Chicago area.

During recent years, interest has increased in incorporating native plants into landscape settings. A recent endeavor of Eastern Illinois University botanists Dr. Janice Coons and Nancy Coutant represents a significant resource in that process. Coons and Coutant have established demonstration gardens on EIU campus that currently feature more than 220 native species. Their efforts highlight not only ecological, but also cost-saving benefits of using native plants in landscape settings.

“We wanted to give people a chance to see native plants in landscape settings,” Coons said. She and Coutant identified a number of both prairie and woodland plants that grow well in much of the Midwest. “We want to encourage nurseries to stock more of the native plants making them more readily available to landscapers,” Coons said.

Coons and Coutant worked in tandem with the EIU grounds department to establish the demonstration gardens. The prairie demonstration garden is located near Lawson Hall and has about 160 native plant species. The woodland demonstration garden is near the O’Brien Football Stadium where trees and wildflowers were already growing. About 60 native plant species have been planted, and additional shrubs will be added.

“The grounds department prepared our sites and continues to provide wood chip mulch from campus,” Coons said. EIU Botany Club students, as well as other interested students, assisted in planting and help with ongoing maintenance.

Plants were purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, Minn., Possibility Place, Monee, Ill., and Prairie Nursery, Westfield, Wis. Plants were also used from EIU projects and from Coons’ and Coutant’s personal gardens.

Wild petunia Michigan lily
Cardinal flower Bottlebrush

“Native plants have deep roots and are adapted to the extreme conditions found in the Midwest,” Coons said. Because native plants thrived on their own for thousands of years and have deep roots, they require fewer inputs of water, fertilizer or pesticides. While native plants require watering during establishment, they can survive with less water once established. As water use is becoming increasingly more important, plants that can survive with less water are assets to the landscape setting.

Native plants also require less fertilizer and pesticides thereby reducing concern about runoff pollution. Pollution from runoff is garnering increased attention, and a number of restrictions are in place with more likely in the future.  

Understanding native plant establishment

Dr. Ken Robertson, Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) emeritus scientist, has worked extensively with native species and is a major contributor to native plant information sources. Robertson pointed out that an understanding of what constitutes a native plant is important for establishment in landscape settings.  

He said, “For example, a native plant may be native everywhere east of the Mississippi River, but it is important to know the seed origin area when selecting native plants for specific locations.”

While many benefits are reaped by professional landscapers and homeowners with the use of native plants, Robertson cited a need to understand requirements for establish native plants.  

“Extensive soil changes have occurred through development,” he said. “Once established, native plants grow well, but we’ve compacted and removed so much of our prairie soil over the years, that we no longer have the native soil in most locations where native plants are being established for landscape purposes,” Robertson said. He emphasized that soil amendments are often needed to provide a good host location for establishing the native plants.

White wild indigo Big bluestem

Partnering to increase native plant use

While a number of nurseries are well informed and focus on native plants for restoration projects and general landscape use, many other nurseries have only limited knowledge of native plants. Coons and Coutant have developed communication tools to help inform nursery staff and landscapers about native plants.  

They have worked with the Illinois Green Industry Association to develop a logo that will identify native plants.  Coons said, “The association will be doing a press release on the logo soon. We’re hoping the logo can be imprinted on containers identifying plants as native species.”

Four posters have been developed that feature information and color photos of native plants for distribution primarily to nurseries. Poster topics include four-season appeal, microclimate species, wildlife attraction and growth habits. Poster development was funded by an Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grant, and that agency will help with distribution.

Invasive species have become a major concern in many settings. “Many species have been used in landscaping and these invasive species have spread into natural areas where they outcompete and eliminate native plant species,” Coons said. She cited the introduction of garlic mustard and its spread to natural areas. “Garlic mustard grows two seasons and can completely cover the floor of an area. It has been a problem in many state parks overtaking spring wildflowers. Purple loosestrife has been a major problem in wetlands,” she said.

“We’ve propagated native plants for use by the Missouri Department of Conservation in restoring sand prairies near Cape Girardeau,” Coons noted.

“Nearly 50 percent of invasive plant species in the U.S. were introduced via gardeners. We’ve worked with the Illinois DNR on preserving native and threatened species. Gardens with native plants can help bridge the distance between the remaining scattered patches of natural areas,” Coons said.  

A number of organizations maintain lists of native plants, as well as lists of native plant and seed sources. An EIU biological sciences department Web site includes a list of native plants that grow well in various conditions. The site can be accessed at www.eiu.edu/~n_plants. INHS, housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, maintains a Web site at www.inhs.illinois.edu/~kenr/prairienativelinks.html that contains extensive information on using native plants in landscape settings.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.