DURHAM, N.H. – Gardeners have been going native for at least 10 years. They are learning how to grow wildflowers and are planting them in ever larger numbers. Just what quality is it that makes a plant a wildflower?
Strictly speaking, a wildflower is a plant that is native to the area in which it is grown and is ideally suited to the weather and climate. Wildflowers are among the native plants which were thriving when the pioneers first settled in this country. They are species that survive nicely without cultivation by man.
Some wildflower species are not native to an area, but can grow there without cultivation. As long as the species are compatible with the area’s climate and do not become invasive (by outcompeting the native plants for space and nutrients) they can be considered naturalized.
Who hasn’t wanted to try their hand at growing a few wildflowers after walking through the woods on a day in May or June? A forest floor carpeted with trilliums or lady slippers is an inspiring sight.
Buy with care.
But if you decide to grow wildflowers, buy them with care. Many native species are being dug from woods and fields and sold through nursery catalogs and garden centers. Only a few nurseries have learned how to duplicate plants from seed or cuttings, and are doing a good job of reproducing them. It’s difficult for the buyer to know the difference, except by the seller’s reputation.
Why does this matter? Because collection of native species is decimating populations, and in some cases, threatening entire populations.
A case in point is the Venus flytrap in the Carolinas. Thousands of these insectivorous plants have been dug from their native bogs because they appeal to buyers. But after a few weeks in the home, they typically die.
With many plants dug from the wild, survival is often a problem. Plants that are difficult to move and reestablish include gentian, lady slippers, hepatica, bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches.
Survival is particularly tenuous for the lady slipper orchid because its life is entwined with naturally-occurring soil microorganisms. These microorganisms process the nutrients that feed this orchid. When transplanted to the garden, wild orchids seldom survive.
The most threatened plants are generally those with the most spectacular blooms. Be particularly choosy when buying cactuses, wild orchids, and the large-flowered trillium grandiflorum.
When trillium propagation is successful, the plants must grow for a number of years before reaching bloom size. If you see large numbers of blooming trillium for sale, you should be suspicious.
Learn to ask the seller the right questions. What is the source of these plants? Were they propagated from seed, cuttings or tissue culture? If you can’t find the answers in the catalog pages, or if the proprietor is not sure of his sources, seek elsewhere.
Information on reputable dealers in wildflowers can be obtained from the New England Wildflower Society. For $4 (postage and handling included) you can obtain a copy of the booklet, “Nursery Sources: Native Plants and Wildflowers.” Write to Garden In the Woods, 180 Hemenway Road, North Framingham, MA 01701-2699. They can be reached by telephone at 508-877-7630.
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