Maine’s native plant species are in trouble, but everyone can do something about it.
Start by planting native perennials from seed on your land, says Heather McCargo, founder of the Blue Hill-based Wild Seed Project, whose mission is to return native plants to the Maine landscape. The nonprofit group publishes a journal, which is available at many local shops.
A former head plant propagator at the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., McCargo has lectured nationally and is widely published in horticultural journals and magazines.
McCargo spoke from her home in Portland, where she and her family relocated after 18 years in Brooksville. Portland makes life easier for her traveling husband.
Also, though, after an eight-month stint in Barcelona a few years ago, McCargo felt called to help enlighten urbanites about issues related to nature.
Are you an apartment dweller? Grow a perennial in a pot or a window box. Every little bit helps, she said.
Are you anxious about planting from seed? Then buy native perennials from a nursery. Just make sure they’ve been nursery-propagated — not cultivars.
“Of our 1,400 Maine native plants, a quarter of them are listed as rare or endangered,” said McCargo. “Mostly plants are dwindling because humans are taking up more space — that really is what it boils down to.”
Planting natives by seed is crucial because those plants are best for promoting genetic diversity.
“It’s the best bet for the future and it’s how wild plants have survived the millennia,” McCargo said.
A note about insects: leave them alone.
“All of our plants have unique relationships with other things,” McCargo said. “All birds need insects to feed their young. All of our native plants have these unique insects that live in them. Probably you can blame horticulture for people thinking that insects are bad for plants.”
“All the native species are pollinator species,” McCargo said. “Most use an insect to cross-pollinate the flower. That web of life is very interwoven.”
Among the pollinators are honey and bumblebees, pollen wasps, ants, bees and hoverflies, butterflies and moths.
If you’re planting perennials purchased at a nursery, ask whether the plants were propagated in the nursery.
“A lot of the natives they offer are cultivars, which are cloned natives,” McCargo said.
What natives to plant? Consider where you’re planting. Is it shady or sunny or a combination of conditions?
McCargo offers an exhaustive list on her website of what to plant for full, partial or coniferous shade.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Start by planting at least one native plant, said McCargo.
Also, if you really want to grow non-native flowers, at least look for those that support pollinators, she said. That means the flowers you choose should have all their sexual parts.
“There’s a lot of garden annuals and perennials that don’t support pollinators because they have double flowers — they don’t have a stamen and nectar,” McCargo said.
However, if you’re planting an exotic, invasive species, then it’s better if the plant has double flowers and is sexually dysfunctional, McCargo said. That way it won’t spread.
“The whole thing with invasives isn’t a joke,” McCargo said. “It’s not that they’re evil. It’s that they’ve been removed from their habitat of natural checks and balances.”
“When we had tons of nature around, we could afford to give over some to plants that really pleased us,” McCargo said.
Besides planting native seeds and native, propagated plants, what else can people do?
“Encourage the nursery trade to do seed-grown natives,” McCargo said. “Nurseries tend to do cultivars and then they just clone those. The problem with that is you’re perpetuating the genes of one individual plant.”
McCargo has a wealth of information on the wildseedproject.net website, including seed propagation techniques.
“Learning to collect seeds is not difficult but it takes some training,” McCargo said.
In collecting seeds, observation is key, noticing what the flowering stems look like after a show of flowers, McCargo wrote in a blog post.
“For example, many of the meadow wildflowers transform into stalks of fluff ready to take to the wind after they have ripened,” McCargo wrote.
“In reality, fall and winter is the time to sow native species,” McCargo said. Aster blooms well into October. Those seeds don’t ripen until early November.
“They actually need a month or two to dry a little bit standing in the cool weather,” McCargo said. “A lot of people mow their meadows before the seeds have dried.”
– Burnt Meadow Nursery in Brownfield is a mail-order “very knowledgeable native plant propagator,” McCargo said.
– Fernwood Nursery & Gardens in Montville. “About 20 minutes from Belfast, he’s a shade nursery,” McCargo said. “He has Trillium that he’s grown from seed but he has other easier, shady woodland natives.”
– Rebel Hill Farm in Clifton —has lots of seed-grown “meadowy-type native plants,” she said.
Remember to ask whether plants were nursery propagated, she said. “A lot of the natives offered are cultivars, which are cloned natives.”
Seeds of knowledge
Heather McCargo recommends the following books for gardeners interested in native plant propagation. Articles and other sources of information are available at wildseedproject.net.
Books about native plants and propagation
* “Growing and Propagating Wildfowers,” by William Cullina, Houghton Mifflin Co.
* “Growing and Propagating Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines,” William Cullina, Houghton Mifflin Co.
* Growing Trees from Seed,” by Henry Kock, Firefly Books
* “Starting from Seed,” BrooklynBotanic Garden series
* “Bringing Nature Home,” Doug Tallamy, Timber Press
* “The Living Landscape,” by Rick Dark and Doug Tallamy, Timber Press
* “Landscaping with Native Trees,” by Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson
* “Brooklyn Botanic Garden Guide: A Native Plant Reader,” Brooklyn Botanic Garden
* “Attracting Native Pollinators,” by the Xerces Society, Story Publishing
Heather McCargo shared some of her favorite plant picks from shrubs to flowers.
Midsize perennial trees and shrubs
Goosefoot (Striped) maple, Acer pensylvanicum
American Hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana
Bush-honeysuckle, Diervilla lonicera
Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
American honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis
Viburnum acerfolium, Viburnum lantanoides
Blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium or coryumbosum
Baneberries, Actaea rubra, A. pachypoda
Black bugbane (cohosh), Actaea racemosa
White snakeroot, Ageratina altissimo
Wild ginger, Asarum canadense
Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum
Wood asters, Eurybia divaricata, Symphyotichum cordifolia
Blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum (syn. Smilacina racemosa)
Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Golden groundsel, Packera aurea
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Foam-flower, Tiarella cordifolia
Violets, viola (bonus, you can eat the flowers, put them in salad or on a cake or infuse them into a syrup for cocktails.)
Full-sun loving perennials
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Asters, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, S. novi-belgii, S. puniceum, S.umbellatus
Marsh-marigold, Caltha palustris
Purple-stemmed angelica, Angelica atropurpurea
Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, C. lyonii
Virginia virgin’s-bower, Clematis virginiana
Spotted joe-pye weed, Eutrochium maculatum
Boneset thoroughwort, Eupatorium perfoliatum
Andrew’s bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii
Water avens, Geum rivale
Wild sunflower, Helianthus decapetalus, H. giganteus H. divaricatus
Sunflower-everlasting, Heliopsis helianthoides
Jewelweed Impatiens, capensis, I. pallida
Blue iris, Iris versicolor
Blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya, L. spicata
Carolina sea-lavender Limonium carolinianum*
Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
Canada lily, Lilium canadense
Wood lily, L. philadelphicum
Swamp yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia terrestris
Bee-balm Monarda fistulosa, Monarda didyma
Allegheny monkey-flower, Mimulus ringens
Golden groundsel, Packera aurea
Obedient false dragonhead, Physostegia virginiana #
Three-lobed coneflower, Rudbeckia triloba
Mad dog skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora
New York American-aster, Symphyotrichum novi-belgii
Blue vervain, Verbena hastata
New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis