Prairie On Blog!

Going Native

September 17, 2013

Here's a good one from the Ohio Prairie Nursery vault. This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Country Living Magazine. Our General Manager, Bob Kehres is quoted in the article and the material discussed still stands true today. If you are interested in learning more about Ohio's Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden please click here.  The Highland Nature Sanctuary is part of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System and you can visit their website here. Please enjoy the following article, and feel free to leave your own comments. Our own high quality native seed and plants are always available on our website. Prairie On!

Going Native-Ohio's Natural Wealth Depends On It
By Jamie Rhien

Most people never have seen the small whorled pogonia-even those who know what it looks like and where to look. This rare orchid boasts a pale white or greenish-yellow flower when it blooms, and that's not often-maybe every few years if the conditions are right. Still, despite its diminutive size-10 inches from the ground up-the orchid speaks to the importance of Ohio's native plants.

The orchid's habitat at Camp Oty'Okwa in Hocking County now is protected by a 160-acre conservation easement, thanks to federal, state, and Big Brother, Big Sister (the camp owners) monies. A fence will keep deer away, and a trail, plus a staircase up an embankment, will keep people from tromping across where the orchid grows. The effort may seem excessive for a plant that is hard to find, but there are reasons for the trouble.

"Besides protecting the plants, you're protecting the other plants and animals in the system," says Rick Gardner, botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). "We still don't know (much) about our ecosystem." There may be some insect that depends on the orchid and something else that depends on that insect, for example. Also, as Gardner points out, the cure for cancer someday may be found in our natural world.

Without safeguards, land development pressure could remove this hemlock forest. The orchid ensures the forest, and the life it supports, remain. For a state where wheat and corn fields have changed vast prairies to farmland and where subdivisions keep multiplying, endeavors to protect the environment are vital to Ohio's heritage that includes five different physiographic regions from the sand dunes of Lake Erie to the hills of Appalachia.

The diversity of Appalachia is what drew Larry Henry, one of the founders of Highlands Nature Sanctuary, to the area in 1968. "The expansive variety of plants-I'd never seen it before," Henry remarks on a day when he was out looking for a skunk cabbage in the snow. The reason for the diversity is that three of the physiographic regions are found in this part of south-central Ohio.

As a former Ohio State Parks naturalist, Henry, along with his wife, Nancy, also a naturalist, envisioned a nature sanctuary for others to enjoy. Today, through their perseverance and dedication, along with the help of countless volunteers, the nonprofit Highlands Nature Sanctuary now encompasses 2,400 acres in five counties, including Highland County's 7 Caves Canyon. With a permit, hikers can enjoy the sanctuary's protection of more than 1,000 native vascular plant species. For longer stays, the sanctuary has a small retreat center.

Luckily, bolstering Ohio's native plant populations also is a growing interest to many of Ohio's gardeners, and you don't need acres to make a difference. A small plot will do, unless you live in the governor's house, where one of Ohio's most famous gardeners, former First Lady Hope Taft, turned the governor's residence grounds into Heritage Garden as a showcase of Ohio's natural bounty. Each section mirrors the landscape of the state's five physiographic regions. From the grass-pink orchids that grow near Lake Erie's sand dunes to the wild ginger and red-and-white trilliums that grow in the woodlands, to the rhododendron and impatients that grow in Appalachia, a walk through this garden is a walk through Ohio.

"I was there last May," says Heidi Hetzel-Evans, public information officer of ODNR, "I was amazed to see the variety of spring wildflowers in a residential setting."

Of course, as Hetzel-Evans points out, most people don't have the vast resources that Mrs. Taft did, but by focusing on one region you can create your own mini-habitat of Ohio beauty. The prairie generally is the easiest. In Hetzel-Evans's own back yard, a mostly wooded place where she is a once-in-a-while gardener, vibrant purple coneflowers bloom in the one sunny, dry spot.

Knowing which native plants grow where is one key to gardening success. "You really need to know your moisture component," says Bob Kehres owner of Ohio Prairie Nursery in Hiram. Kehres's business specializes in high-quality native seed and seed mixes and native plants. Since Ohio's soil ranges from wet to mesic to dry, it's important to know which type is in your yard, as well as the soils pH content. What grows in one location might not thrive in another. "Site preparation is also important," says Kehres. Working organic material into the soil and removing unwanted weeds helps ensure success.

When in doubt, there's plenty of help. "You have to do some research," says Hetzel-Evans. "The Ohio State University Extension Office also provides information. Also, ask local nurseries about native plants. Master gardeners programs and native plant societies often give presentations. You (also) can see what's growing in the nature preserve and parks around you." The downloadable "Making a Prairie Garden" brochure off the ODNR website is a good how-to reference.

Acquiring plants is another step. "Be careful with the Internet to make sure seeds are responsibly grown. For example, if you have found an inexpensive lady slipper orchid, it's probably not good, Hetzel-Evans cautions.

One way to get ready-made plants is through plant rescues. Rescue groups go to a development site and, with permission, remove the native plants and plant them elsewhere. Several of Hope Taft's plants came to the Heritage Garden this way. Local native plant resources, and sometimes city metro parks will pass out seeds. Before you take plants from anywhere, get permission first, and remember that in state nature preserves taking seeds and plants is illegal.

For people interested in planting a native plant garden but who find the project daunting, Kehres sells rain garden, hummingbird and butterfly garden, and native wildlife habitat seed kits. The kits "remove obstacles to make native plant gardening easy. People want to do something good, but sometimes won't, if it's not easy," says Kehres.  When you do plant a garden, he advises, "don't think of it as working in a vacuum." When you plant native plants, native creatures will be attracted to the area. Coneflowers attract monarch butterflies, for example. And, keep in mind that "most species are perennials, so you won't see them in one year after you plant them from seeds," says Kehres. "Be patient."

Even if you're interested only in adding a few purple coneflowers to a sunny spot or wild ginger to a wooded area, you're protecting the wealth of Ohio"s plant heritage. As Henry recalls, "I remember yellow lady slipper orchids when I was young, and trilliums used to be everywhere." For Henry, this is a cautionary tale. "When you protect the rare, you protect the common," he says. And the small whorled pogonia in Hocking Hills is a reminder to do just that.

Jamie Rhien is a freelance writer from Columbus.

The five physiographic regions of Ohio
Isotria medeoloides-small whorled pogonia