Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What would it mean to lose our native plants?

Sometimes you have to travel 300 miles to appreciate what you have at your doorstep. That’s what I rediscovered as I attended and spoke at the Midwest Ecological Landscape Association (MELA) at the Chicago Botanic Garden Feb. 25.

Eager to tour the 385-acre garden located in Glencoe, an established, well-to-do suburb just north of Chicago, I arrived early the afternoon prior to the start of the MELA Conference. Twenty-six unique gardens delight visitors on and around the islands created more than 35 years ago on the property. But who tours gardens in late February? Well, I guess I do.

As I suspected, a landscape doesn’t have to be in full bloom to be beautiful, especially one the scale of the Chicago Botanic Garden wrapped as it was in a blanket of fresh white snow from the previous evening. Best of all, my wife, Vicky, and I had it to ourselves.

But this isn’t about the larger garden in all of its soft, sculpted winter beauty; it’s about a special exhibition in the Regenstein Center, one of the buildings there. The Regenstein, where the MELA Conference took place the following day, is housing an exhibit of watercolors and drawings of rare and endangered native plants. The exhibit, available for viewing through April 4, is entitled “Losing Paradise, Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.”

As we walked the exhibit, marveling at the incredible precision and beauty of the drawings and watercolors of the plants, I wondered aloud (and a bit exasperated) why one of my favorite plants, the Lakeside daisy, wasn’t also featured.

The Lakeside daisy (Hymenoxys herbacea) is among the rarest of flowering plants in the United States and gets its name from the community near my home (Lakeside, OH) where it grows on 19 acres of old limestone quarried land. Apparently, several other tiny colonies of the species can be found, one in Michigan and the other in Ontario, Canada. Even so, we claim the tough little survivor as uniquely ours. Early each May we celebrate the appearance of its tiny yellow blossoms and give the plant its own special day, our Lakeside Daisy Day.

As it turned out, my impatience was unjustified. I had just to turn a corner to discover an incredible watercolor of the Lakeside daisy by artist Dianne McElwain. Indeed, we discovered that our own Lakeside daisy was the star of the exhibition. Its image graced posters promoting the exhibition at several locations within the Chicago Botanic Garden. Imagine our pride. Here it was, an attractive but otherwise unremarkable plant that a casual and careless observer might, on an afternoon’s walk along the quarry property near our home, disregard as insignificant, being featured in one of the nation’s most stunning botanic gardens.

The sight of beautiful watercolor got me to wondering: what is the significance of this smallish, clump-forming, herbaceous perennial? Who can say? All that I can say for certain is that once it’s habitat is altered or destroyed, and once it’s gone — it could be gone forever. Not that that’s likely to happen, not now anyway. Our Lakeside daisy has been recognized and appreciated, and its habitat is being protected.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for hundreds of other native plant species. Dr. Jerry Wilhelm, who spoke at the MELA Conference the next day, told the overflow audience of 200-plus attendees in the modern Regenstein Center auditorium. With more than a little passion and regret in his voice, he shared that more than a third of the plant species native to Illinois prior to settlement by Europeans has either disappeared or are threatened with extinction.

That may not seem like a big deal to those of us in the landscape industry, who make our living designing and installing gardens according to our typical plants lists, building retaining walls, laying pavers, or mowing properties. But to Dr. Wilhelm, principle botanist/ecologist with Conservation Design Forum, Elmhurst, IL, it’s an unfolding tragedy that we’re all likely to regret once we realize the significance of what’s taking place through careless land planning and development.

Listening to Dr. Wilhem, it occurred to me that as the sustainable movement gains importance (and it will), and the realization grows that we must design, install and maintain landscapes capable of thriving within specific, local environmental regions with fewer inputs of resources, such as water and chemical products, the loss of valuable native species may come back to haunt us. — Ron Hall

1 comment:

Carol said...

Thank you for this wonderful article Ron! May we reprint this on our website and in our newsletter?

Carol Becker
MELA Executive Director