Cameron High’s meadow is worth seeing

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purple flowers
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

When Cameron, West Virginia’s new high school opened in 2012, it was touted as a state of the art facility, perhaps the best in the state. It was truly a big deal in this small rural community.

Designed and built as a green and energy-efficient school, the new Cameron High School features a large landscaped wildflower meadow on the steep slopes fronting the campus.

Selecting a blend

The landscape firm hired by the contractor selected a blend of grasses and wildflowers to cover the area.

Any planted wildflower meadow takes several years to establish itself, but the CHS meadow faced the additional challenge of a gully-washer rain storm shortly after planting.

Many of the seeds simply washed to the bottom of the hill. That was five years ago, and the meadow has recovered nicely. But it hasn’t been easy.

The school and county faced a lot of public pressure to “cut down the weeds.”

Fortunately, administrators remained patiently committed to the wildflower meadow concept. And the school’s National Honor Society chapter stepped up to adopt the meadow, plant additional wildflowers, erect explanatory signage, and educate the public.

“The students have really embraced the concept of the meadow and the important environmental goals it represents,” my wife Linda, NHS adviser, explains. “The officers took the lead, but many other members have helped with planting and fund-raising for signs and seeds. I’m so proud of their commitment to the project.”

Natural plantings

From a green schools perspective, Linda explains that not only do the natural plantings benefit wildlife by providing valuable habitat, they save countless gallons of fuel, pounds of pollution, and hours of manpower by eliminating the need for constant cutting and upkeep.

The meadow is cut just once a year, late in the fall, to stimulate plant growth and let it mulch itself. As Linda and I visited the meadow each week this summer, we were amazed at what it had become.

Talk about sensory overload. In May patches of daisies and purple lupine stole the show. Later blankets of brown-eyed Susans and wild bergamot (bee balm) emerged. Then came common milkweed and stands of purple coneflowers, Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, and lance-leaved coreopsis, a yellow daisy-like flower.

As summer fades, a sea of goldenrod and asters will steal the stage. And those are just some of the wildflowers. As the flowers go to seed, they provide food for birds such as chipping sparrows, field sparrows, song sparrows, goldfinches and indigo buntings.

Insects observed

Notable insects we’ve seen include tiger swallowtails, painted ladies, fritillaries, sulfurs, whites, bumblebees, honeybees, grasshoppers, katydids and praying mantises.

And of course we have seen myriad caterpillars. That’s really good news because without caterpillars there can be no butterflies.

If variety is the spice of life, then a well-established wildflower meadow enhances what might otherwise be just another grassy hillside that needs to be mowed every week.

Instead, natural meadows are comprised of about 80 percent grasses and 20 percent wildflowers. The grasses provide structural support for the more fragile wildflower stems.

The wildflowers provide the color and beauty. Landscape designers try to replicate these conditions.

Landscapers carefully choose both the grass and flower species they plant to attract very specific wildlife species — especially butterflies, bees, and birds.

In an age of severe honeybee and monarch butterfly decline, more and more land owners and nature lovers choose plantings that attract and enhance the habitat for these creatures.

More than wildflowers

The meadow has become much more than a wildflower meadow. It is a refuge for pollinators. NHS members hope to incorporate the meadow into actual classwork as an outdoor laboratory.

Their ideas include cataloging species according to the seasons and propagating additional flower species in the greenhouse before transplanting to the meadow.

As the CHS wildflower meadow matures, it is certain to become more impressive every year.

If planting a wildflower meadow sounds like a good idea, one source of seed is Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville, Pa. (www.ernstseed.com; 800-873-3321)

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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