Restoring native plants to the Maine landscape



Turk's-cap lily (Lilium superbum) is among the native Maine plants that attract and are a source of food for hummingbirds. Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) are others. PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

Turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum) is among the native Maine plants that attract and are a source of food for hummingbirds. Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) are others.
PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

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.”

Milkweed’s canoe-shaped green pods turn from pale green to yellow and split along one edge. Pick the pods and put them in a paper bag to dry. PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

Milkweed’s canoe-shaped green pods turn from pale green to yellow and split along one edge. Pick the pods and put them in a paper bag to dry.
PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

“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?

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) supply abundant nectar for late season bees and butterflies. PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) supply abundant nectar for late season bees and butterflies.
PHOTO COURTESY WILD SEED PROJECT

“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.”

Recommended nurseries:

– 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

Planting ideas

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

Perennial plants

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

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