Native flora good in heat, dry conditions
Updated: June 19, 2012 7:36AM
So the Kentucky bluegrass lawn you’ve babied with water and fertilizer this year still looks sere, and your day lilies have wilted in the dry, hot summer of 2012. What do you do?
Charlotte Adelman, co-author of The Midwestern Native Garden (Ohio University Press), suggests you look a little closer to home when choosing your plant life. You’ll benefit both your garden and the local ecosystem.
Adelman, a retired Wilmette attorney who, with husband and co-author Bernie Schwartz, champions homeowners’ use of native plants, said June 14 that the grasses, bushes and flowers of the Midwest are tailor-made to withstand heat and drought.
“The prairie is an ecosystem that developed in a very dry and semi-arid, sunny climate. And it’s been very successful.”
Key to their success are their surprisingly deep, hardy root systems. Native plants can reach down as much as 20 feet to take advantage of scarce water, she said.
Compare that to the two-inch roots of English grasses imported to America after people like Thomas Jefferson introduced the idea of lawns, and you begin to see the advantage of buffalo grass, switch grass or Big Bluestem grass, not to mention the allure of flowers like the blazing star or the prairie rose.
“Even tough plants may not survive really hot dry seasons, not all of them,” Adelman cautioned. “But some of them will.”
Growing native plants, especially the many colorful milkweed species that once bloomed across Illinois, will help save native birds and butterflies, Adelman said. Many, including the gorgeous Monarch butterfly, can’t reproduce on plants introduced from Asia, Europe or elsewhere.
Her own gardens, nearly all comprising native flora, are doing well despite the heat, and will probably need less water than pretty but comparatively fragile non-native species.
More homeowners are looking to hardy Midwest-born plant alternatives, Adelman said. She has seen homes where gardeners have upped the number of native flowers and grasses on their property, shrinking their lawn space. And more are heading to garden centers to specifically ask for native plants. When gardeners ask for native plants retailers do respond, she said.
Jennifer Brennan of the Wilmette-based Chalet landscape and gardening center in Wilmette said her operation does promote native plants, and customers are asking for them, especially in the wake of two years of tough environmental conditions.
“They’re great because they support wildlife like butterflies and birds,” Brennan said, echoing Adelman.
“If we were Martians looking down at people here planting lawns, so that they could cut them every week and water them obsessively and make work for themselves, they’d think we were nuts,” Adelman joked. “Especially when there are so many alternatives.”